- Asteroid C/2019 Q4 is a mysterious object hurtling towards our solar system.
- Astronomers are not even sure what it is.
- Watching C/2019 Q4 has astronomers missing near-Earth asteroids until it's too late.
Astronomers have been so busy observing a mysterious object in deep space that they’re overlooking dangerous nearby asteroids with the potential of hitting the Earth, sometimes only noticing them as they strike or zoom past the planet.
Object C/2019 Q4 was first discovered on August 30 by amateur Ukrainian astronomer Gennady Borisov, and scientists have been baffled by it ever since. At first, the consensus was that it’s a giant space rock which originated in our own solar system. But, its composition remains a mystery and astronomers now believe it’s an interstellar traveler, only the second to have been discovered.
The first was an asteroid dubbed Oumuamua, which flew past Earth in 2017. Because of its incredible speed, scientists were only able to study it for a few weeks before it left the solar system forever. The near-Earth flyby caused a sensation and had some highly respected scientists wondering if it was actually an alien UFO. That hypothesis has since been overruled, with most experts now agreeing it was just an ordinary asteroid.
So, naturally, when object C/2019 Q4 (when are they going to change that funky name?) was first observed, it caused quite a stir in the skywatcher community.
Just two weeks later, its flight path has been charted and scientists believe it will be observable well into the year 2021. “It’s so exciting,” said Dr. Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer with the European Southern Observatory. “We’re basically looking away from all of our other projects right now.” In the meantime, objects much closer to Earth, and some which may either skip past or actually strike the planet, are being dangerously overlooked or outright missed entirely.
The most recent example occurred in late July when Asteroid 2019 OK had its closest approach to Earth, passing less than one-fifth the distance to the Moon at a speed of more than 55,000 miles per hour. At a little under 500 feet wide, if the asteroid had entered Earth’s atmosphere, it would likely have burned up in a spectacular fireball, but could have caused widespread, regional damage or harm.
And, in April of last year, Asteroid 2018 GE3, over 100 yards in length, was spotted mere hours before crossing Earth’s orbit, about half the distance to the Moon. Scientists have put it into the same class as the 200-foot wide Tunguska meteor which is believed to have leveled a sparsely populated forest in Siberia in 1908. The lesson supposedly learned was that large space rocks can still take us by surprise.
Perhaps the scariest example of the scenario was the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor, which exploded over Russia, breaking windows, causing structural damage and injuring more than 1,000 people. In that case, the asteroid went undetected until the fireball was seen in the sky, and its explosion in the atmosphere caused chaos in an urban environment over 500 miles square and home to hundreds of thousands.
So, the natural conclusion is that, while it’s prudent, and even exciting, to be aware of mysterious objects years away from a solar system flyby, it might be a better idea to keep our eyes peeled on the dangers closer to home.
What do you think? Are skywatchers dropping the ball?
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