Please don’t worry about asteroid 2018 VP1, the one you may have heard about in the news recently. Yes, it’s headed in our direction and will pass closest to Earth on November 2, just one day before the U.S. presidential election. Despite the apocalyptic timing, this tiny object — estimated at 7 feet (2 meters) across — will almost certainly miss the planet. Its nominal closest approach occurs around 6 a.m. CST November 2 when it zips past us at a distance of 260,400 miles (419,000 km). That’s 20,000 miles beyond the moon, so we can all relax.
While close, numerous asteroids have ventured much closer. Some have even skimmed the upper atmosphere and then skipped back into space like the 1972 Great Daylight Fireball. On August 10 that year an asteroid estimated at between 10 and 45 feet across ripped through the atmosphere at 33,000 miles an hour just 35 miles (56 km) overhead. Hundreds watched it streak across the blue sky right in the middle of the day. Atmospheric drag slowed its speed by 2,600 feet per second, but the bolide squeaked through and returned to space. The encounter took its toll, however, with the asteroid shedding a third to a half of its original mass.
This month alone four asteroids ranging in size from 6.5 to 52 feet (2-16 meters) across have passed as close as 4,800 miles (7,700 km) from us. In fact, very small asteroids strike the Earth’s atmosphere every year and even land on the ground without giving everyone the willies. They’re called meteorites.
2018 VP1 was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Survey (ZTF) in November 2018. ZTF is an automated survey of the night sky that looks for fast-moving asteroids, exploding stars and the like. Because the survey observed the asteroid for just 12.9 days, it only saw a short piece or “arc” of its full orbit around the sun. The longer astronomers can observe a new object — the longer the arc — the more certain they are of its path and exactly where and how far the asteroid will be on a future date.
We lack that 100 percent certainty with our election visitor, the reason there’s currently a 1 in 240 (0.41 percent) chance of it impacting the Earth. On the other hand, it may only come as close as 2.3 million miles (3.7 million km). Either way, 2018 VP1 won’t achieve potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) status. PHAs not only pass close to the Earth, but they’re at least 460 feet (140meters) across, large enough to do real damage should an impact occur.
Even in a worst case scenario — a 100 percent chance of 2018 VP1 hitting the Earth which, to be clear, no one is predicting — it’s too small to cause alarm. The space boulder’s high-speed encounter with the atmosphere will shatter it to pieces, maybe even turn it to dust. Should any significant pieces remain, they’ll fall harmlessly as meteorites in some remote corner of the globe.
I think that 2018 VP1 is a good omen, reminding us that the following day, November 3, is election day. On the flip side of the coin it also reminds us that anything can happen at any time — all the more reason to accomplish what you can today whether or not you’ve got an asteroid breathing down your neck.