NANJING, CHINA — Chinese astronomers will stream a close encounter with a huge asteroid heading toward Earth Wednesday.
Known as 52768 (1998 OR2), the asteroid will fly by Earth at a speed of 8.69 km per second. Web users can watch it live on microblog Sina Weibo and video-sharing app Douyin. Experts from the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences will track and share images of it starting at 8 p.m. (Beijing Time) on the two platforms.
Zhao Haibin, an astronomer with the observatory, said given its large size, the asteroid can be observed by telescopes with apertures of 15 cm to 20 cm at the observatory’s Xuyi Station, based in east China’s Jiangsu Province.
Since the start of this year, Zhao’s observatory has reported many asteroids making close passes with Earth. It finds another asteroid is expected to approach Earth on May 1, at a distance of 7.05 million km above the surface.
Frequent asteroid flybys have aroused considerable concern and become a heated topic online. Asteroid-related stories on Weibo have received more than 100 million hits and thousands of comments.
Many netizens ask whether these objects will cause harm to Earth and human beings. Stories about the asteroid 52768 possibly hitting Earth have also appeared online recently.
If the two giant objects were to hit Earth, they might cause global catastrophes, Zhao said. “But fortunately, when they come closest to Earth, they are still 6 to 7 million km away, more than 10 times the distance between Earth and the moon. Therefore, they are not going to hit or cause any harm to our planet.”
Zhao also said there is no need to panic, as scientists are developing methods to change the orbits of asteroids and defend against their impacts.
“With continuous sci-tech development, we will find effective defense measures. Human beings will not wait passively like dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” Zhao said.
“Asteroids are not just potential threats, but also offer us rare opportunities to understand and explore the universe,” said researcher Ji Jianghui, of the Purple Mountain Observatory.
“Many asteroids were formed when the solar system was born. They are a precious legacy in the universe and ‘time capsules’ to record the evolutionary history of the solar system, which are also important for us to explore the formation and evolution of our planet,” Ji said.
Apart from observation, many countries have proposed asteroid space exploration plans. According to Ji, since some asteroids have been found to possess abundant resources such as water and metals, many European and American companies are preparing to carry out asteroid mining programs.
“In the future, asteroid exploration will even become a symbol of space power,” said Ji, also a member of the expert committee for scientific goal argumentation of deep space exploration in China.
In the next few years, China plans to launch a probe to detect the asteroid 2016 HO3 and the Main-Belt Comet 133P, Ji said.