Mars Dodges a Bullet

Word from the orbit gurus at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is that the impact watch for Mars is officially "off." On January 9th they announced that the odds of tiny 2007 WD5 crashing into Mars on January 30th have dropped precipitously, to about 1 in 10,000 (0.01%). Instead, the two should come no closer than about 16,000 miles.

Asteroid 2007 WD5
The University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter (88-inch) telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, captured asteroid 2007 WD5 (circled) on January 8–9, 2008. Other dots are artifacts from cosmic rays. The stars are trailed because the telescope tracked the asteroid as it moved among the stars.
D. Tholen / F. Bernardi / M. Micheli
This near miss was the likely outcome all along, but uncertainty remained until some big telescopic guns weighed in earlier this week with updated tracking observations. Estimated to be no more than 150 feet across, the asteroid is a dim 24th-magnitude blip and getting fainter as it moves outward from Earth and toward Mars.

Over the past few weeks astronomers have responded to this "will it or won't it?" situation just as they should have. A possible impactor was found, its projected track (though wildly uncertain) showed that a collision couldn't be ruled out, and the call went out for additional observations that eventually settled the matter.

Because the drama surrounding 2007 WD5 played out 50 million miles away, we were all spared the sensational news-media hype that usually surrounds these "killer asteroid" stories.

In discussions among the scientists involved, a few hold the opinion that the public becomes needlessly agitated when they learn that some space rock has a 1-in-XXXX chance of hitting Earth, only to learn later that additional observations have ruled it out. Others say that being able to watch the probability game play out is a good thing, a demonstration of how science actually "works."

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Mars Dodges a Bullet

  1. Sandyinz4

    Even tho it didn’t happen, I am grateful that there are those who are still keeping a watchful eye on the skies.

  2. Robert

    Bummer. I was really hoping to see a nice collision. I think that it’s great that we get to find out that there’s a possibility even if we find out later that it won’t happen. Should people not be told they’re exposing themselves to risks just because it might not affect them and only be informed once it’s certain to be a problem? No, and part of education is learning to use what’s between the ears not just have it shoved in when someone else thinks it’s important. Put the information out there, let them decide for themselves. Dumbing it down only perpetuates dumbness.

  3. David Bradley

    The sort of accuracy to detect asteroids of this size has only been possible for the last couple of decades with the awareness of the need for an effective spacewatch, primarily to protect our own world. Hence the press releases about 2007 WD5. The big question that people have started asking is, if the object misses Mars, where is it going to go next? I should imagine at this moment the probabilities are far too uncertain to predict its future path, but astronomers should be able to do this with a greater degree of certainty after January 30th. One cynic has already remarked that the asteroid is bound to be re-directed to collide with Earth at a sensitive point.
    &nbsp:
    Your intrepid reporter did ask that question, and the answer is that Earth is safe at least for the next 50 years (after which the calculations get ragged). The reason is that, although the asteroid’s perihelion point is very nearly Earth’s distance from the Sun, it’s nowhere near the ecliptic plane when that occurs. You can see this clearly in JPL’s orbit display. — Kelly Beatty

  4. David C. Finch

    To withhold information on the probability of an event like this happening is unethical, in my opinion. People will respond to that information in different ways due to, in part, their education/intelligence. I can’t think of any better way to persuade people to gain more knowledge in math and science than to invite their discussion on these type of subjects.

  5. Ron Spence

    Even though the impact into Mars by 2007WD5 isn’t going to happen it is nice to see the scientists and other astronomers coming together on this. A call went out and people stepped up. Well done! Also, when we saw the impact into Jupiter by Shoemaker-Levy 9 it was an eye opener, not to mention exciting, but that was into a gaseous planet. With 2007WD5 hitting Mars, with it’s more Earth like structure, we would be better able to understand what would happen to Earth if it happened here.
    Should the public have been notified? I my opinion, no. They want certainties, 100% predictions. To say it may miss by quite a distance, then shorten it to say it has a very good chance of hitting Mars and then to say it will miss will give the nay sayers more fodder to doubt this science of asteroid tracking. Not to mention the media hype that goes along.

  6. Olle Kjellin

    Everybody knows that prognoses of tropical storm tracks, stock value development, etc., are likely to change on a daily or even hourly or minute basis, so the phenomenon of such change should not come as a surprise. Clearly, the astronomers should be more explicit about this, then there should be no problem. Covering up would rather generate roumors and myths.

  7. shylaja

    I think this was hyped too much by the media. This topic should have been discussed within the astronomy circles. Some reporters even said that if it misses Mars, the next target would earth and so on. However, I would like it to miss Mars so that we have an opportunity to see how the orbit gets perturbed.

  8. George-EbertsGeorge Eberts

    Conspiracy fans will read a variety of things into this, like, the Powers That Be know when the REAL collision is gonna be but are editing the truth to reassure the sheeple… but we gotta keep these things public and use them for discussion of what science really is and is not. So, to hell with the conspiracy freaks, the real inquiring minds definitely want to know!

  9. Marc

    The media comes up with all kinds of strange conclusions… for instance this one:

    A site in my mothertongue (Dutch) reported the following when 2007WD5 was discovered: “The chance of impact is 1 in 75. Scientists expect the chance of impact to rise in the coming week”.

    When I posted that wasn’t possible, the next post said: “if you don’t believe it, don’t post here, you moron. just go to another site!”
    In other words: critique wasn’t expected nor accepted.

    But it keeps on bugging me. Is it possible to EXPECT THE CHANCE OF SOMETHING TO HAPPEN WILL RISE?

    Greetings,
    Marc

  10. Björn Gimle

    “Is it possible to EXPECT THE CHANCE OF SOMETHING TO HAPPEN WILL RISE? ”

    I agree this statement looks absurd.
    But it could be possible e.g. if an astronomer measures a position, slightly deviating from predictions, and realizes that this change nudges the orbit closer to impact. However, he doesn’t have the resources to do an accurate determination/integration.

  11. Fred ShumanFred Shuman

    Yes, it is possible to reasonably expect the chance of something to rise, because it is reasonable to *expect* the more likely of two possible outcomes, and it is possible for the chance of some event to be more likely to increase than to decrease. So, if the chance today is 1 in 75, and the coming week’s observations have a 2-in-3 probability of sending that chance to 1 in 50, with a 1-in-3 probability of sending it to 1 in a million, then while these numbers are internally consistent with the current 1 in 75 chance, the expectation would be that it will rise. Of course, it is still much more likely (74 in 75) that the chance eventually becomes ‘nearly impossible.’ As far as what should be told, count me in favor of disseminating the information, because I have faith in the American public’s (including my own) capacity to grow given more knowledge. There is a point beyond which information overload sets in, but I don’t think this is anywhere near that point.

  12. Michael C.

    I knew a lot of people that heard this story. Many of them were asking me for updates as time went on. So it was cool for people to see how these types of models are refined and real answers obtained. I only wished the media would follow up on such stories. If all you did was watch the news you would probably still be under the impression that there will be a collision.

  13. Bernard A. Badger

    What would it cost to nudge the asteroid into a collision with Mars? Surely we would learn a lot from observing an asteroid collision with a terrestrial-type planet. How much “shrapnel” would be generated? Would it harm our Mars orbiters? Any idea how much it would cost to find and nudge a “Lucifer’s Hammer” [Niven & Pournelle] asteroid? Could terrorists send one at the Earth?

  14. Michael C. Emmert

    I agree with Robert and David C. Finch that the people need to be informed of asteroid near-misses. Not doing so is elitist and a violation of humanity’s basic right to know.

    The people who want 100% certainty can go into anxiety attacks if they choose to do so, but the reactions of a small, noisy minority should not trump the rights of the rest of us to know. I believe a significant majority of the people are now aware of how the odds of an impact can change. Thus the “media hype” fall into the category of “entertainment”, requiring a suspension of disbelief. And that’s what they do, suspend disbelief and treat the event just like science fiction, for a while.

    What’s wrong with that? I have enjoyed many hours of science fiction, knowing that faster-than-light travel is impossible and the complex plot of something like “Forbidden Planet” is highly unlikely. But these things are for fun.

  15. justsomeguy

    I didn’t really get the impression that the media hyped this too much at all. I read one short article on Yahoo! back before christmas and that was the last I heard. I would rather have seen/read more about this than what’s going on with Britney Spears.

    As far as letting the public know about events like this? You bet!! I just got a new telescope for xmas and my wife and I were looking forwarding to the possiblity of viewing something that will most likely not happen in our life time.

    The government regulates enough in our lives, keep government control out of this kind of science.

  16. justsomeguy

    I didn’t really get the impression that the media hyped this too much at all. I read one short article on Yahoo! back before christmas and that was the last I heard. I would rather have seen/read more about this than what’s going on with Britney Spears.

    As far as letting the public know about events like this? You bet!! I just got a new telescope for xmas and my wife and I were looking forwarding to the possiblity of viewing something that will most likely not happen in our life time.

    The government regulates enough in our lives, keep government control out of this kind of science.

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