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Asteroid 2012 DA14 definitely won't hit Earth. So why are people freaking out?

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is scheduled to whiz past our planet with a comfortable 17,000 miles of clearance. So why all the gloom and doom?

By Natalie WolchoverLife's Little Mysteries / March 8, 2012

In this oblique view, the path of near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 is seen passing close to Earth on Feb. 15, 2013.

NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office

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Asteroid 2012 DA14 is making headlines this week, despite the fact that the "incoming" space rock, as it has been described, definitely won't hit Earth.

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The 150-foot-wide asteroid will pass within 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) of us next February. That's nearer than the orbits of some geosynchronous satellites, and the closest shave of a mid-size asteroid ever predicted before the flyby has actually occurred. But even so, NASA assures the world that there is no chance of 2012 DA14 hitting Earth next year. Zero, zip, zilch.

Why, then, all the terror about this unthreatening space rock? And why the recent doom and gloom about another asteroid, called 2011 AG5 — a football-field-size rock that NASA says will almost certainly not collide with the planet in 2040? Don Yeomans, head of the Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, blames the upsurge in asteroid panic on two main factors.

"One problem is that the Internet is wide open to anyone to say anything," Yeomans told Life's Little Mysteries. In the past, claims about asteroids were written up by scientists and submitted to peer-reviewed journals, a critical process that "would filter out nonsense," he said. "If something was published, it was reliable."

But today, hundreds of scary blurbs about the latest asteroid get written and posted to blogs and tabloid-like sites before NASA scientists can vet the claim and publish their official, less-terrifying statement regarding the asteroid's trajectory. "In the case of this asteroid, you get hundreds of hits on the Internet, and in the case of the 2012 [Mayan calendar] business, millions of hits suggesting disaster. And you get a few folks in the media and at NASA who put out the truth. But people go online and see millions about disasters and a few saying 'no disaster' and they think, well, the majority of these say I should be worried," Yeomans said. [Will We Be Able to Deflect an Earthbound Asteroid?]

The other half of the problem is that many people do not know how to judge the validity of the pseudo-scientific information they read. "There are millions of people out there who have not been trained in the scientific method, and don't understand that evidence is critical for supporting any new idea — especially any dramatic departure from the current state," he said.

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