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Earth in for another near-miss with an asteroid at end of month

Earth will get another asteroid fly-by later this month. NASA announced Thursday, May 16, that a 1.7-mile-long asteroid will fly through Earth’s vicinity on May 31.

The asteroid won’t get anywhere near close enough to hit Earth. Its closest point will be approximately 3.6 million miles away, equivalent to 15 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. That’s a very good thing, because a collision would be forceful enough to trigger 300-foot-high tsunamis that could travel 15 or more miles inland, wiping out whole towns and cities living on the coasts. Some 100 million people—10% of the world population—would be within their range. Survivors would have to contend with severe damage to Earth’s ozone layer and massive disruptions to climate everywhere, two other consequences of an asteroid of this size hitting Earth.

Scientists first spotted this particular asteroid in 1998 and thus dubbed it “1998 QE2.” Its orbit swings by Earth periodically, sometimes closer and sometimes farther away. Its May 31 flyby will be the closest it will get to Earth for the next 200 years.

Asteroids nearing Earth are a fairly common occurrence, though. Four passed by our planet just last March, including the 460-feet-long asteroid 2013 ET, which missed Earth by only 600,000 miles; and the 23-foot-long 2013 EC20, which ended up only 93,000 miles shy of our planet. An asteroid of 23 feet would probably burn up in the atmosphere before causing any damage, but had the former made a hit, it would have packed enough punch to flatten a whole city.

In addition, the closest flyby in recorded history took place in February, when 2012 DA14 passed Earth by 17,000 miles. It was a slightly bigger one, too, at 150 feet across.

As many as 400 asteroids have orbits that take them close to Earth. And while none of the above asteroids hit Earth this time around, scientists cannot guarantee that they won’t crash into our planet the next time around.

Such occurrences are exceedingly rare, however, based on Earth’s history. The current record places asteroids of around 65 feet crashing into Earth once every century, and asteroids that are more than a mile across hitting Earth once every 10,000 years. Small debris hits our planet repeatedly, with around 50,000 tons of space rock falling through our atmosphere every year, but the majority of it disintegrates before ever reaching the surface.

In the meantime, NASA hopes to outfit a spacecraft in the next few years to capture one of these close-flying asteroids and bring it in for closer impact. One model that the agency is working on now could fly a mission as soon as 2019.