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Humongous asteroid could strike Earth in 2040

The 460-foot wide asteroid 2011 AG5 could be on a collision course with our planet. But the odds are very small, say scientists. 

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The space rock presents a "decision challenge" to the international community, Schweickart suggested, "in the unlikely chance that its current low, but significant probability of impacting Earth in 2040 continues to increase after additional tracking becomes available."

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Schweickart spotlighted a rough Association of Space Explorers analysis of the options to deflect the asteroid in the future, in the unlikely scenario that the Earth impact probability continues to increase.

He also provided to the Action Team several new appraisals of options for deflection of asteroid 2011 AG5 to avoid a potentially dangerous Earth encounter in 2040.

Delayed deflection campaign

A decision date for a keyhole deflection is very soon, if not now, Schweickart suggested. Asteroid 2011 AG5 represents an actual threat that underscores the need for a NEO hazard decision-making structure within the UN COPUOS, he said.

Based on the latest analysis, Schweickart reported, a deflection campaign delayed until after the 2023 close approach appears marginally possible, as long as a decision to commit is made immediately thereafter.

In the low-probability case in which the impact threat of the asteroid persists beyond its 2013 apparition, "should a keyhole deflection campaign be foregone — for whatever reason — the international community may be faced with the difficult decision of choosing between an expensive multikinetic impactor or a nuclear explosive to prevent an impact should the NEO indeed pass through the keyhole," Schweickart said.

The timelines that would be required to mount a successful deflection of the asteroid, Schweickart told SPACE.com, might be challenging. 

But first things first — researchers stress that more study of the asteroid’s trajectory is called for. The next tracking opportunities of 2011 AG5 will occur in September 2013, and then again in November 2015.

NASA chief: We still have time

In response to a letter from Schweickart regarding 2011 AG5, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that 2011 AG5 is "high on NASA’s list of NEOs to monitor for impact hazard potential," adding that "we take these duties very seriously.".

Bolden also noted the opportunities for highly accurate ground-based observations in the near future.

"Based on these observations, a more informed assessment can then be made on the need for any type of mitigation," he said.

Bolden also remarked that the asteroid makes an apparition in 2015, more than seven years before the close keyhole passage in 2023 that could set in motion an Earth impact in the 2040 time frame.

"As a point of comparison, NASA’s Deep Impact mission [the Deep Impact probe smashed into comet Tempel 1 in July 2005] was conducted in six years from selection to impact under much less urgency, demonstrating the adequacy of a seven-year period for any necessary response," Bolden said.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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