No asteroid hits Earth in this news – basic research

By Renata Fontanetto

Click-hunting titles inform more incorrectly than scientific processes communicate

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Let him throw the first stone (or meteorite) that has never found a sensational title in astronomy. On January 7, a newspaper reported that according to NASA, the 2009 asteroid JF1, 130 meters in diameter, could hit Earth on May 6, 2022. The next day, Thiago Signorini, a professor at UFRJ’s Valongo Observatory (OV) and a member of the Brazilian Astronomical Society, said on Twitter that the object has a 0.026% chance of colliding with the planet and that in reality it was 13 Meter.

There, there and there we go …

A 130-meter asteroid has a 0.026% chance of hitting Earth in May next year.

This does NOT mean that “NASA said an asteroid could cause mass destruction in 2022”.

Stop it guys please. pic.twitter.com/fuMUoWTPVR

– Thiago S. Gonçalves (@thiagosgbr) January 8, 2021

News that paint astronomy in the colors of the end of the world, or that is just thinking of turning online traffic into a website – the famous ‘click hunt’ tactic – is doing a disservice: “They turn scientific news into sensationalism that it doesn’t Doing has to do with research that separates the public even more from the scientific community, ”says Signorini. For the astronomer studying the formation and evolution of galaxies, the purpose would be to impress rather than inform: “We are missing the opportunity to introduce the scientific method”.

And what are the actual chances of an asteroid hitting Earth? It depends on whether. An object is considered potentially dangerous if it approaches 20 times the distance to the Moon in the vicinity of Earth orbit and is more than 100 meters in diameter. The monitoring is carried out, among other things, by astronomers who work with celestial mechanics and examine the dynamics of the orbits of objects in the solar system. Diana Andrade, also a researcher at OV, has meteorites among her objects of study. With the meteorite group, she travels to Brazil with other researchers to look for materials that have fallen from the sky to analyze in the laboratory.

“Between Mars and Jupiter there is a belt with many asteroids, most of them small in diameter, less than 100 meters. There are three groups with orbits near Earth: Apollo, Athens, and Cupid. Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are being studied extensively because two of these classes – Athens and Apollo – can cross our orbit and pose a certain risk, ”explains the astronomer. This does not mean that they will fall on the planet, just that the trajectories must be monitored. “The earth’s atmosphere itself consumes small objects due to the friction caused by their entry. It won’t arrive here or it will arrive in smaller pieces, ”he explains.

There is a list of celestial bodies that are constantly monitored on NASA’s website. The 2009 JF1 is in fourth place there. The page contains many technical terms, but one column, the last, communicates in a simple and objective way using the Turin scale. The scale created by the International Astronomical Union provides information on whether a body in the vicinity of Earth orbit is dangerous, whether it can fall and how severe the destruction would be on the planet. From zero to ten, each number indicates the potential risk, with zero indicating a very low risk of collision and ten indicating a certain collision with destruction on a global scale. Currently, most of the properties in the last column have zero risk.

“Even if an object is signaled on levels one, two, three or four, it is possible to frame it from new observations on level zero,” says the astronomer. From level five, the bodies are considered large and very close to the earth, which would motivate an international effort to investigate and, if necessary, minimize the damage caused by the impact. Events from the last three levels are rare – the last event on level ten was the likely asteroid that contributed to the extinction of dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.

When the odds are slim, investing in this type of basic research is important. In Signorini’s opinion, science is not a short term but a long term activity. “As we understand it, we can apply knowledge in ways we didn’t even expect,” he notes. For him, astronomy has to do with origins: that of the universe and that of our place in it.

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Renata Fontanetto is a journalist and coordinator of the Center for Media and Dialogue with the Public at the Museum of Life in Fiocruz.

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