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Sat, Dec 22, 2007

Is Mars Doomed?

Answer, No... But Asteroid May Hit Red Planet January 30

A one-in-75 chance may not seem like very much to bet on at the tables in Vegas... but in cosmic terms, it's an almost-sure thing. NASA says a newly-discovered asteroid, scheduled to make a low fly-by of Mars at the end of next month, may in fact strike near the red planet's equator.

The chance of collision poses a real opportunity for astronmers to study the effects of such a strike on a planet. In fact, if the asteroid -- known as 2007 WD5 -- does hit Mars, NASA will have the equivalent of a front-row seat, thanks to the Mars Opportunity rover... which has been exploring an area just outside the expected impact zone since 2004.

"These odds are extremely unusual. We frequently work with really long odds when we track ... threatening asteroids," said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Currently, the asteroid may pass within 30,000 miles of Mars at about 0600 EST January 30. Earlier this week, NASA placed the odds of collision at one-in-350... but raised the chances this week, based on new data.

Chesley added those numbers will probably drop again, though, when scientists receive new data regarding the object's orbit early next month. "We know that it's going to fly by Mars and most likely going to miss, but there's a possibility of an impact," he told The Associated Press.

"Right now asteroid 2007 WD5 is about half-way between Earth and Mars and closing the distance at a speed of about 27,900 miles per hour," added Don Yeomans, manager of the Near Earth Object Office at JPL. "Over the next five weeks, we hope to gather more information from observatories so we can further refine the asteroid's trajectory."

If the asteroid does strike Mars, it would hit the planet at a speed of eight miles-per-second, and would release about three megatons of energy... creating a hole roughly the size of Arizona's Meteor Crater.

"Unlike an Earth impact, we're not afraid, but we're excited," Chesley said. "We estimate such impacts occur on Mars every thousand years or so. If 2007 WD5 were to thump Mars on January 30, we calculate it would hit at about 30,000 miles per hour and might create a crater more than half-a-mile wide."

Scientists believe an event of comparable magnitude occurred on Earth in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia, but no crater was created. The object was disintegrated by Earth's thicker atmosphere before it hit the ground, although the air blast devastated a large area of unpopulated forest.



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