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Earth's close encounters
LAST Friday the unthinkable almost happened. An asteroid would have hit the Earth with the force of an atomic bomb, claiming millions of lives, yet scientists missed it. SIMON BENSON reports
ASTRONOMERS say it came "out of the Sun". Like a bolt from the blue, it skimmed past Earth at 40,000km/h before telescopes could pick it up.
That was last week on June 14 as the world went about its business oblivious to the threat from space.
It wasn't until three days later, on June 17, that scientists realised how close we had come to collision – within 120,000km.
That's three times closer than the Moon and in astronomical terms a very close shave. It now has scientists worried that objects of such size are slipping through the net undetected.
The last time we encountered such a near-Earth object of similar size was in 1908. That one hit and wiped out 2000sq km of forest in Siberia.
"In the unlikely event the asteroid had struck Earth in a populated area, it would have caused considerable loss of life," said astronomer Grant Stokes from the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Project in New Mexico – which picked the object up last week.
"The energy release would be that of a large nuclear weapon."
It is only the sixth time an asteroid has been recorded so close to Earth and it is also the largest.
The asteroid, dubbed 2002 MN, would not have caused global destruction, but it would have had the potential to flatten a city the size of Sydney.
"It was a close shave," said Brian Marsden of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.