Monday, August 30, 2004


Doomsday is not upon us.....

Asteroid (4179) Toutatis will be making a very close approach to Earth in September. Toutatis is a Near-Earth Asteroid discovered in 1989 by Christian Pollas at Caussols in France on plates obtained by Alain Maury and Derral Mulholland. On September 29 of this year, it will pass just 1.550 million kilometers (963,000 miles) away from Earth - that's just 4 times the distance to the Moon - a close approach, but not an impact. Here's a couple websites which summarizes what we know about Toutatis:

Of course, there are some rumors of doomsday with claims that this asteroid is going to actually hit Earth instead of fly harmlessly past. Here's a sample of webpages about those rumors:

If Toutatis were to hit Earth, and it might someday (but don't worry, it won't anytime in the predictable future - at least a few hundred years...), it would do a great deal of damage. The object is about 2.4 by 4.6 kilometers in diameter. It would cause a crater around 40 kilometers in diameter (the size of a medium to large city) and throw enough debris into the atmosphere to likely cause a small nuclear winter type event or at least affect the climate on Earth for a few years. It would devistate an area the size of a state and if it impacted in an ocean, it would cause tsunami along the shores of that ocean. But humananity would survive the impact - Toutatis is not large enough to cause a mass extinction event, though it would kill a great many if it were to hit.

In any case, Toutatis poses no immediate danger despite the cries of a few kooks and crackpots who claim otherwise..... On the other hand, this close approach gives a wonderful opportunity for those with small telescopes to see an asteroid visually. I had the opportunity to view an asteroid I discovered in 1991 when I spent an evening using a 16 inch telescope. I was prepared with finding charts of the area the asteroid would be passing through. It was moving about an arcsecond every couple seconds and was about 12th magnitude. As we centered up the telescope on the field, my eye was drawn to one star in particular - it wasn't moving fast enough to be obviously moving, but it would shift enough to be obvious compared to the stars around it after a few moments and the subtle motion was enough for my eye and brain to pick it out. Toutatis will be about 9th magnitude at its brightest as it zips across the sky. At its brightest it will be best viewed from the southern hemisphere, but before that when it's brighter than 12th magnitude, it will be visible to anyone with a telescope and some advanced preparation.



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