Feb 13, 2019 I Brett Tingley

New ‘Scary Known Unknown’ Asteroid Could Be One of Many

Astronomers using a new state of the art telescopic camera have detected a strange new asteroid which is adding to the growing number of known Earth-killing asteroids zooming around in near space. Researchers believe the curious object could be part of a massive unknown population of asteroids zooming around space near the Sun and inner planets. When will the next big one hit?

We have found an extraordinary object whose orbit barely strays beyond Venus’ orbit — that’s a big deal. In so many ways, 2019 AQ3 really is an oddball asteroid.

That’s according to Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral researcher at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology. Ye was part of the team which discovered 2019 AQ3, an asteroid some researchers have dubbed a “scary known unknown.”  The object is one of the fastest known asteroids, orbiting the Sun every 165 days and is believed to be almost 1 mile (1.6 km) across - plenty big enough to kill every living thing on Earth were it to impact. More good news: 2019 AQ3 is also among the first asteroid to be found which stays within Venus’ orbit, meaning it stays relatively close to Earth, cosmically speaking.

The asteroid is called “scary” because it is in a class of near-Earth objects (NEOs) which are so small that they aren’t quite bright enough to be detected until they’re very close to Earth. If one were to be discovered on a collision course with our planet, it would likely be too late to do anything about it except party like its the end of the world. 2019 AQ3 is a “known unknown” because while we know that tens of thousands of similar objects are zooming around in the Solar System, we’ve only just begun to identify and track these potentially hazardous NEOs. 

There could be many more thousands that we haven’t even gotten a glimpse of yet - some of which may pose a threat to Earth. Luckily, though, researchers believe 2019 AQ3 does not endanger Earth because its orbit keeps it tens of millions of miles out of our way.

Still, the discovery of 2019 AQ3 highlights why more and more attention is being paid to NEOs. Scientists discovered the enigmatic 2019 AQ3 last month while conducting a survey of the skies with the brand-new Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF. The ZTF instrument is designed to detect fast-moving or transient objects such as comets, asteroids, supernovae, gamma ray bursts, or neutron star collisions and can survey the entire northern sky in just three nights. Already, ZTF has detected almost 60 new near-Earth asteroids, one of which was detected only hours before it flew within 70,000 miles of Earth - just a third of the distance to the moon.

While space agencies and governments are beginning to track and identify more of these NEOs, the Earth still faces a grave threat from these potentially dangerous objects. Some scientists have even alleged that NASA and other space agencies are hiding the truth about deadly asteroids and that the Earth could be in greater immediate danger than we know. Will humanity be able to take to the stars before the Earth’s slate is once again wiped clean by a massive impact?

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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