Everyone remembers the infamous words uttered by UK weatherman Michael Fish prior to the Great Storm of 1987 when he assured a viewer concerned about reports of an incoming hurricane with "don't worry, there isn't [a hurricane]."
To be fair, he did then follow up with "baton down the hatches, there’s some extremely stormy weather on the way," but it is all to easy to recall the "don't worry" quote when we are assured that something isn't going to happen.
To bring me to my point, it's a little how I feel every time I'm asked for a quote regarding the chances of an asteroid hitting the Earth, as several newspapers have done over last week regarding asteroid 2005 YU55's close pass with the Earth last night. In this case, close means slightly closer to the Earth than the Moon, and the asteroid in question is around 400 metres wide. Yes, that *is* a close pass – the closest of such a sizeable asteroid in fact since 1976 and the closest again until 2028 – which is what makes it more exciting than asteroids that mind their own business elsewhere in the Solar System. But what excites me most about a pass like this is the opportunity to get some big telescopes on it to see what's going on on the space rock's surface – how big are its craters? What can we learn about its composition? How does it rotate? – that kind of stuff and, more importantly, learn about the ingredients that went into building our own planet, since asteroids can be thought of as left-overs from the planet-building phase over four billion years ago.
Of course, I know that the asteroid isn't going to hit us – with all the near-Earth asteroid surveys in place discovering, tracking and monitoring the paths of these rocks as they tumble through space, we are pretty clued up on what's lurking on our cosmic doorstep, and although there are still surprises (think 2008 TC3, a tiny 3-metre wide rock that was discovered less than 24 hours before it burned up in our planet's protective atmosphere, and which was also never any threat to us), I trust the predictions that the NASA asteroid experts make and I know enough about asteroid orbital dynamics and what-have-you to not go around making unfounded claims about the next armageddon (sorry 2012-end-of-the-world crackpots). But yet there is still a nano-second of minor panic when I see myself quoted – seemingly dismissive of the whole thing, for example "Expert Dr Emily Baldwin said "Asteroids do sometimes make close passes of Earth, it's nothing to worry about," as seen in the Mirror yesterday (see above) – or when a friend listening to the radio texts me to say "you've just been quoted on 6music and the DJs were saying they didn't believe your reassurances".
But as another friend pointed out, if I am wrong and the Earth is obliterated by an asteroid that I said was nothing to worry about, at least no one would be around to remind me about my gaff! Every cloud...
To read more about last night's asteroid buzz and to watch a movie of the asteroid snapped by NASA's Goldstone tracking site, click here.