Impact in 2052 ruled out as the European Space Agency (ESA) counts down to Asteroid Day
Just in time for worldwide Asteroid Day: a threatening space rock lingered at the top of risk lists around the globe for months, with a real chance of striking Earth on April 2, 2052. Now, ESA’s asteroid team working with experts at the European Southern Observatory (
What was it like to track this asteroid? Get the full story in ESA’s fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how European experts handle asteroid risks in the official countdown to Asteroid Day live on June 30, airing at 10:25 CEST on AsteroidDay.org and via ESA WebTV.
2021 QM1 was first discovered on August 28, 2021, by the Mount Lemmon Observatory, located north of Tucson, Arizona. At the beginning, nothing stood out as unusual about the discovery – about a dozen new near-Earth asteroids are identified every dark night. Routine follow-up observations were subsequently acquired from telescopes around the globe, but these began to tell a more worrying story.
“These early observations gave us more information about the asteroid’s path, which we then projected into the future,” said Richard Moissl, ESA’s Head of Planetary Defense.
“We could see its future paths around the Sun, and in 2052 it could come dangerously close to Earth. The more the asteroid was observed, the greater that risk became.”
It’s important to note that orbit calculations based on only a few nights of observations are subject to some uncertainty, which is why asteroids often get added to ESA’s risk list soon after they are discovered and are then subsequently removed once more data is gathered, uncertainties shrink, and the asteroid is proven safe. On this occasion, that was not possible.
Unfortunate cosmic alignment
Just as the risk appeared to be increasing, an (im)perfect cosmic alignment occurred: the asteroid’s path brought it closer to the Sun as seen…