Is an asteroid really going to collide with earth just days before the November 3 election? A rocket scientist helps us understand the impact
October 2020: A Note from Hope — In late August, news outlets around the world declared, “An asteroid will pass extremely close to Earth the day before the election.” I got to wondering: How worried should we be about this potential collision? So I reached out to my rocket scientist friend in Washington, DC — Dr. James Thorne, an award-winning musician who teaches kids about space through song. We featured Jim in the July 2020 issue of Inkandescent Health & Wellness magazine. and are happy this month to bring you his educated explanation on the impact of this possible visitor from space. Scroll down for Jim’s insight. If you have more questions, send us an email.
Keeping an Eye on Asteroids
Yes, it’s true. An asteroid about 6 ½ feet across will pass somewhere close to Earth. It’s unusual for us to know about it so far in advance, since it’s normally very hard to see small asteroids from far away. They don’t produce their own light, so we can only see them by the sunlight that reflects off of them, in the same way that we see the moon. People at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California, discovered this particular asteroid in 2018 so we’ve have had plenty of time to predict where it will go in the future.
Most asteroids are very small, often like grains of sand. An asteroid becomes known as a meteor if it enters the earth’s atmosphere, and even if they are as small as sand grains, they can create long, colorful trails in the night sky. If a meteor is big enough to make it all the way down through the atmosphere to land on the ground, it’s called a meteorite. Large meteors and meteorites are very rare, and the largest only seem to come by millions of years apart. There are currently 994,383 known asteroids and 3,665 known comets.
Let me explain: In our solar system, there is a very large belt of thousands of asteroids that mostly stay between Mars and Jupiter, which are both moving in nearly circular orbits. However, as we can see in this special picture from NASA, the orbits of some of the asteroids are not close to being circular at all. When they move in large oval shapes called ellipses, sometimes asteroids get closer to the sun, and sometimes they are far away.
In the picture from NASA (above), Jupiter’s orbit is shown as the outer circle, and Earth’s orbit is the brightest circle near the center. There are many more asteroids than the special group shown here that actually cross the orbit of Earth when they get close to the sun, which is the case for the asteroid that will pass nearby to us in November. The asteroids that get near to us are called Near Earth Objects, or NEOs.
The planet Venus is just located inside the orbit of Earth, closer to the sun. The closer a planet is to the sun, the faster it moves, and a year on Venus is only about 225 Earth days. NASA has considered the idea of putting a robotic space telescope near Venus to watch for NEOs, because it would move around the sun faster with the planet.
The reason this matters: It’s hard to see the asteroids if they are near the sun from our point of view, but this point of view would be changing much faster from the orbit of Venus, which would give us a better chance to see any fast-moving asteroids.
On my TV show, Space Quest with Dr. Jim, a robot astronomer named Vista visits us from a future space station located near the planet Venus for just this very reason. You can meet Vista and her friends at www.jimthornemusic.com with links to the TV show and other information about space science and history.
Many meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere every day, but most of them are so small that they don’t hurt anything. We can see them with our eyes most easily at night, but there are also special satellites that can detect the heat given off by the meteor trails in the atmosphere. Some people think that because the meteors ionize the air as they pass through it, which means they create a trail of charged particles, it’s possible that sometimes long lighting strikes can follow the meteor trails in the sky!
Just like Earth, all of the other planets in our solar system are struck every day with lots of small asteroids. However, in 1994, Jupiter was hit with a string of broken comet fragments that were really large. It’s possible that Jupiter’s gravity is so strong that it has helped to protect life on the Earth from the biggest asteroid impacts throughout ancient history. Meanwhile, people at NASA and elsewhere are keeping an eye on the sky to watch out for any asteroids that might come close to Earth.
About Dr. James Thorne
Who grows up to be a rocket scientist? “A kid who is fascinated by space travel,” explains Dr. Jim Thorne, who has combined his passion for astronautical engineering with a love of music to give us Space Quest with Dr. Jim — a 2020 Telly award-winning TV show.
The educational series is based on Jim’s CDs of songs, To Follow Apollo, and A Race In Space, which teach children (and adults) about space science and history. Jim brings the adventure to earth by telling the tale through the voices of two kids from the future — Tommy and Laura — who explore space with their robot companions, Piper and Vista.
In the decade that he’s been crafting the CDs and TV series, Jim’s stories and catchy tunes that have caught the attention and imagination of children around the world.
But that’s the sort of thing that Jim would have wanted for himself as a child growing up in western PA. Identified as a gifted student in the third grade, Jim was selected as the subject of a special research project by a graduate student in education.
He filled the next decade learning everything he could about math, science and space engineering, while studying to play the piano, guitar, banjo, trombone, and later jazz flute and mandolin.
Jim graduated from high school in three years, then began earning a degree in space engineering at Purdue University. “I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong,” says Jim, who spent the next 21 years in active duty in the US Air Force working with space systems. He also completed his masters and PhD degrees in astronautical engineering.
One of his proudest accomplishments is solving a 300+ year-old problem in orbital mechanics. “It was described as difficult by Isaac Newton,” admits Jim, proudly noting the equation he derived is known in scientific literature as Thorne’s Solution of the Lambert Problem.
Click here to read our article about Jim and his work in the July issue of Inkandescent Health & Wellness magazine.