POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 28, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 2:05 a.m. HST, Sep 28, 2010
A "potentially hazardous" asteroid that will make a distant approach to Earth next month has been spotted by a telescope on Haleakala that just became operational in June.
The University of Hawaii announced that the asteroid, dubbed 2010 ST3, is the first "potentially hazardous object" to be discovered by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS.
"There is a very slight possibility that ST3 will hit Earth in 2098, so it is definitely worth watching," said Robert Jedicke, a University of Hawaii member of the PS1 Scientific Consortium.
In mid-October, the asteroid will come within 4 million miles of Earth, about 16 times farther away than the moon.
The asteroid was discovered Sept. 16 when it was 20 million miles away and is about 150 feet in diameter, scientists said.
Objects the size of 2010 ST3 usually break up in Earth's atmosphere, but the resulting blast wave can still devastate an area covering hundreds of square miles, the university said.
On the Net:» Pan-STARRS | The Threat to Earth
In 1908 a space rock flattened the forest around Tunguska, Siberia. The rock, estimated at 120 feet across, blew up above ground with the force of 185 Hiroshima bombs, NASA has estimated.
Most of the largest potentially hazardous objects have already been cataloged, but scientists suspect there are many more under a mile across that have not yet been discovered. These could cause devastation on a regional scale if they ever hit Earth.
Such impacts are estimated to occur once every few thousand years.
The university said Pan-STARRS expects to discover tens of thousands of new asteroids every year with sufficient precision to accurately calculate their orbits around the sun. Any sizable object that looks like it might come close to Earth within the next 50 years or so will be labeled "potentially hazardous" and carefully monitored.
NASA experts believe that, given several years warning, it should be possible to organize a space mission to deflect any asteroid discovered to be on a collision course with Earth.
"Although this particular object won't hit Earth in the immediate future, its discovery shows that Pan-STARRS is now the most sensitive system dedicated to discovering potentially dangerous asteroids," said Jedicke.