2021 QM1 was on its way towards Earth with a possibility of hitting the planet, as calculations revealed, in 2052. The object was on a path towards the Sun and was set to come dangerously close to the home planet.
On June 29, just before the Asteroid Day, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that the asteroid ‘2021 QM1′ is no longer on the ‘risk list’. After its discovery in August last year, scientists feared that it may collide with our planet in 2052, however, the follow-up observations refined its trajectory, and the astronomers confirmed that it is no longer a threat.
On August 28, 2021, the Mount Lemmon Observatory, located north of Tucson, Arizona, was picked by an object cruising in the vastness of space. There was nothing unusual about it like other such objects detected every day beyond Earth. But in the days that followed, this asteroid became a priority as observations from telescopes across the world told a different story.
“We could see its future paths around the Sun, and in 2052 it could come dangerously close to Earth. The more the asteroid was observed, the greater that risk became,” Richard Moissl, Head of Planetary Defence at the European Space Agency said.
Cosmic Alignment Was Unfavourable:
While asteroids are regularly observed and catalogued, they are placed on the risk list based on initial observations and then removed after the orbital calculations are refined. However, in the case of 2021 QM1, the asteroid was in no mood to reveal its identity. The asteroid’s path brought it closer to the Sun as seen from Earth, and for months it became impossible to see due to our star’s brilliant glare. What worried astronomers was that it was moving away from Earth in its current orbit and by the time it passed out of the Sun’s glare, it could be too faint to detect. “We just had to wait,” explains Marco Micheli, Astronomer at ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre.
Most Powerful Telescope:
While the James Webb Telescope gets ready for first observation later this month, astronomers brought in the big guns. The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) was primed and as soon as the 50-meter asteroid edged out from the sunlight, astronomers were ready.
“We had a brief window in which to spot our risky asteroid,” explained Olivier Hainaut, Astronomer at ESO. However, it was not that easy as the asteroid was passing through a region of the sky with the Milky Way just behind. The small, faint, receding asteroid would have to be found against a backdrop of thousands of stars.
But the telescope proved its might. The VLT captured a series of images with thousands of stars filling the background, which were refined and stacked to find the faintest asteroid ever to be observed. The asteroid was 250 million times fainter than the faintest stars visible to the naked eye from a dark spot.
With the fresh observations, the math was refined and the new orbital calculations ruling out an impact in 2052, and 2021 QM1 was removed from ESA’s risk list. However, another 1377 remain. According to the European Space Agency, more than one million asteroids have been discovered in the Solar System, almost 30,000 of which pass near Earth, with many more expected to be out there.
How do scientists prevent asteroid impacts?
For starters, they have doubled down on their efforts to recognise the asteroids that could or would strike Earth in the near future. NASA records show that over 16,000 NEOs have been discovered so far and thankfully, no space rock will make its way into our planet anytime soon. As for ensuring protection against these space rocks, we are a work in progress since NASA launched its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission to test if deliberately slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid could change its path or even destroy it.
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