LOS ANGELES — An asteroid large enough to wipe out France hurtled past the Earth at a distance of about a half-million miles just days after scientists spotted it.
The asteroid, dubbed 2001 YB5, came within 520,000 miles of Earth — approximately twice the distance of the moon.
The asteroid, estimated to be 1,000 feet across, was traveling about 68,000 mph relative to the Earth when it zipped past on Monday.
“It’s a fairly substantial rock. If it had hit us at that sort of speed, you would be taking out a medium size country, France, I suppose, or Texas, or something of that order,” said Jay Tate, director of the Spaceguard Centre in Wales.
Astronomers with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking program discovered 2001 YB5 on Dec. 26. As the asteroid travels around the sun, it crosses the orbits of Mars, Venus and Mercury, as well as that of the Earth.
Soon after its discovery, astronomers calculated the asteroid’s orbit and determined that there was no danger it would strike Earth.
Had it been on a collision course, it would have created “one of the worst disasters in human history,” said Steven Pravdo, the NEAT project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“What could we have done about it? The answer is not much,” Pravdo said.
Dozens of asteroids pass close by the Earth each year. On Friday, for instance, an asteroid known as 2001 UU92 will pass within 11 million miles of Earth. However, just 19 others have come closer than 2001 YB5 since 1991, Pravdo said.
As astronomers discover more and more near-Earth asteroids, they seek a standardized way of alerting the public to what potential hazard they pose.
Among programs already in place is the Spaceguard Centre’s Comet and Asteroid Information Network, which began work Jan. 1.
On the Web: http://www.spaceguarduk.com/
NEAT Project: http://NEAT.jpl.nasa.gov/