Big Asteroid On Collision Course With Mars

La Canada Flintridge (CA) - Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, part of NASA's Neart-Earth Object Program, who jokingly refer to themselves as "the Solar System Defense Team", are tracking a 160 foot diameter asteroid that has a 1 in 75 chance of striking Mars. The asteroid, dubbed 2007 WD5, is currently behind the moon. When it emerges in two weeks, scientists will be able to get a better fix on its trajectory and determine the revised probability of impact.

According to one of the researchers, typically the odds they look at for solar system strikes are a million to one. Anytime they have something that's 100 to 1 or less, they sit up straight and tall in their chairs and take notice. And whereas normally they hope against the asteroid striking the surface (when Earth is in the cross-hairs), this time they're totally behind the idea of it impacting upon the surface of Mars - especially so with so many NASA assets ready to take front-row pictures.

Currently the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is mapping Mars, and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers are on the surface preparing for a cold winter (see previous coverage on Spirit and Opportunity). This would be the first time that humans have significant assets in place to observe a potentially devastating crash. In 1908 in Siberia, Russia, a similar sized asteroid broke up in the atmosphere and rained debris over an 830 square mile area, knocking down over 80 million trees. It was the largest impact with the Earth in recent history.

With the thin Martian atmosphere, the asteroid will likely make it all the way to the surface, creating an impact crater 1/2 mile wide when it strikes. NASA will likely be able to get some high-gloss 8-1/2" x 11" photos of the asteroid as it passes through the atmosphere and impacts upon the surface.

Read more ... LA Times.