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2002 NT7 Flyby Offers Clear Evidence of NASA's Warped NEO Suppression Policy

YOWUSA.COM, 26-August-02
Jacco van der Worp

Near Earth ObjectOn July 24th and 25th most major media across the globe headed with the story that a possible Earth-impacting asteroid 2002 NT7 had been discovered. The impact would still be years off into the future, but there was a real chance of trouble.  In the end, 2002 NT7 missed the Earth by 75,000 miles, so why worry? 

To put the 2002 NT7 flying in perspective, let's do a little calculus.  The Earth moves along its orbit by approximately 19 miles a second. That means that if this asteroid crossed in front of us or behind us on our orbit, it would have passed less than 70 minutes (!) before or after Earth would reach that same location in space. Or in other words, the same amount of time it takes for many people to commute from their homes to work each morning, spared us a devastating impact event!  Thankfully that did not happen, but the flyby showed us how much effort NASA puts into lulling us into a false sense of security with its warped NEO suppression policy. 

Reuters, July 24, 2002
Mile-Wide Asteroid Might Collide

WASHINGTON -- Maybe, just maybe, a large and newly sighted asteroid could hit the Earth -- but probably not, astronomers said on Wednesday.

They have issued an all-points bulletin on the asteroid that at first looked like it could be on a collision course with Earth, but it will take several more weeks of observation to tell for sure.

Scientist say a collision with a large asteroid half a mile or 1 km in diameter could kill a quarter of the world's population. Statistically, every 100 million years a 6-mile-wide (10 km-wide) object hits the Earth in an impact like one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

So real in fact, that it received positive values on the Torino as well as the Palermo scale, two rating systems that attribute a value describing the danger factor of anything out there in the Solar System bringing disaster to Earth. From the same report:

Reuters, July 24, 2002
Mile-Wide Asteroid Might Collide

"This one just popped up because it is a big object," Spahr said. "It is two kilometers in size so if it hit it would be really bad. We have a scale called the Palermo scale that takes into account size and possible impact velocity and comes up with a rating for an object."

2002 NT7 is the first "positive" object on the scale system, meant to predict how much damage an asteroid would do if it just happened to hit.

"It just means you better go look at it some more," Spahr said. Don Yeomans of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pointed out that the Palermo scale system is only a year old so it is not terribly significant that this is the first positive.

The Torino and Palermo Scales

Two scales to assess the danger from an asteroid, that seems confusing to begin with. Not if you take a closer look at what each of them stands for.

Spacegaurd Web Site
The Torino Scale

The Torino scale is a classification (similar to the Ritcher scale for earthquakes) to quantify the impact hazard of a certain NEO. This classification has been introduced, for the first time, at an International Conference on Near-Earth objects held in June 1999 in the city of Torino, as a revised version of the "Near-Earth Object Hazard Index" created by Professor P.Binzel of the MIT.

The Torino scale is a two parameters scale: it utilizes numbers form 0 to 10 to indicate the chance of a collision, while the color is used as a second parameter to give an information about the danger of the event (going from white, non dangerous bodies, to red, catastrophic events) . 

The Torino Scale

NASA, Mar 12, 2002
The Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale

The Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale was developed to enable NEO specialists to categorize and prioritize potential impact risks spanning a wide range of impact dates, energies and probabilities. Actual scale values less than -2 reflect events for which there are no likely consequences, while Palermo Scale values between -2 and 0 indicate situations that merit careful monitoring. Potential impacts with positive Palermo Scale values will generally indicate situations that merit some level of concern.

How is the Palermo Scale different from the Torino Scale?

The Torino Scale is designed to communicate to the public the risk associated with a future Earth approach by an asteroid or comet. This scale, which has integer values from 0 to 10, takes into consideration the predicted impact energy of the event as well as its likelihood of actually happening (i.e., the event's impact probability). 

(the above Torino scale link gives a listing instead of the above diagram, using the same color coding)

At first glance, nothing seems wrong with this approach. They (NASA) explains that they ask for astronomers world-wide to help assess the true risk involved with the rock in question. Both scales are applied to its risk, with similar result. It sounds fair and like good consensus, but unfortunately, there's more.

Nothing to see Here Folks,
Just Move Along

Only four days later, on July 28th 2002, the relieving white smoke came from NASA's chimneys:

NASA, July 28, 2002
Asteroid 2002 NT7: Potential Earth Impact In 2019 Ruled Out

With the processing of a few more observations of asteroid 2002 NT7 through July 28, we can now rule out any Earth impact possibilities for February 1, 2019. While we cannot yet completely rule out an impact possibility on February 1, 2060, it seems very likely that this possibility will be soon ruled out as well as additional positional observations are processed. Because the SENTRY system tracks a multitude of test particles in an effort to map the uncertainties of the asteroid's future positions, some of these test particles can take slightly different dynamical paths. Hence there are currently two entries for 2060 in our IMPACT RISK table. The entry with the higher risk (larger Palermo Technical Scale) would be the value that would then take precedence.

This can hardly be called surprising. This is what could be expected, as more observation will lead to a refining of any prediction and a reassessment of the risks involved. Which by itself is good science. No objections can be raised to that. But then come the cheap shots. 

No Real Danger

Three days later again on Wired news there is a report in which NASA assures that everything is under control and there is nothing to worry about for us.

Wired News, July 31, 2002
Just a Bunch of Asteroid Holes

Last week's news that a mile-wide asteroid had a teeny-tiny chance of colliding with the planet in 2019 -- a possibility discounted after a few days of further study -- was both eerie and numbingly familiar. At least four other celestial near-misses have made similar headlines this year.

Don Yeomans of NASA"We considered keeping (the asteroid discovery process) all under wraps. But then the conspiracy nuts would have come out of the woodwork," said Don Yeomans, who manages NASA's near-earth object program office. "Not that they haven't anyway."

No doubt this group was particularly riled after scientists found a football field-size asteroid days after it passed within 75,000 miles of Earth -- less than a third of the distance to the moon. The asteroid came from out of the daylight sky, Yeomans said, so it was impossible to see in advance.

Scientists did, however, see asteroid 2002 EM7 before it flew by, just a bit farther than the moon, in March. They also caught 2001 YB5 when it came as close as 400,000 miles in January. Not to mention 2001 WM15, which came within 750,000 miles in November 2001. 

"Big asteroids have hit Earth before and it's only a matter of time before one threatens us again. Will it be years, decades, millions of years? No one knows," read a recent NASA press release.

Conspiracy nuts coming out of the woodwork? Well certainly, a conspiracy that arranges a "football field-sized" asteroid to hurl by from the direction of the Sun, missing us by a mere 75,000 miles, right? Not exactly because a 70 minute miss is a bit too close for comfort and not just to conspiracy nuts.

And they tell us we should not be worried about that. What they should have told instead is that they will work even harder on a program to help detect even those rocks that cannot be seen from Earth. That will assure the public to some extent, not this kind of lullaby. 

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