"Armageddon" rock misses Earth by Moon's distance

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Sunday, July 2, 2006

Asteroid 2004 XP14, a half-mile wide chunk of hard rock travelling at 40 000 miles an hour, will miss the Earth by a few hundred thousand miles, Monday.

Dr David Asher from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland said if the rock, discovered in 2004, were to hit the Earth the result would be devastating. "It would probably be big enough to wipe out a small country," he said.

Amateur astronomers with 6-inch telescopes would be able to follow the speeding space debris in Europe and North America at its closest approach to the planet at 0425 UTC.

At this time it would be at a safe distance of 268,624 miles from Earth - closer to the Earth than the Moon would be at its farthest extent in its orbit.

2004 XP14 is named as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA), along with 782 known others by Astronomers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard.

Zipping about in the solar system no PHAs have yet been found on direct collision course with the Earth. Still, "For something of this size to come this close is unusual," said Don Yeomans, the head of NASA's Near Earth Object Program."

An expert at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said it was the closest approach by such a massive object for over 80 years - since 1925.

Before 2004 XP14's exact orbital path around the sun was known with more precision, there were concerns it would hit the Earth.

In the near future Jon Giorgini said such cosmic uncertainty would be much less and the public less alarmed. "In the next 20 to 30 years, we'll have a complete catalog of hazardous objects," Giorgini said.

Edward Lu and Stanley Love, of Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas also have allayed fears about a collision. In a 2005 article in Nature they theorised a "gravity tractor" could move any known threat within a year.