An asteroid striking our planet is the stuff of science fiction. Several movies and books are based on the idea ("Deep Impact," "Armageddon," "Lucifer's Hammer") — or trying to stop one.
But an asteroid impacting Earth isn't just the stuff of science fiction, it's also the stuff of science fact. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has an "Asteroid Watch" that's entire purpose is to detect and track asteroids (and comets) the agency thinks will come close to Earth.
There were five asteroids on the Asteroid Watch dashboard for December 2022, alone, including two thought to be the size of a commercial jet. Earlier in the year one asteroid — NASA labeled it asteroid (7482) 1994 PC1— was 2.5 times the height of New York City's Empire State Building. It flew on by Earth on its closest approach in 200 years Jan. 18, 2022, at safe distance of 1.2 million miles (1.93 million kilometers).
But not all asteroids throughout history have missed Earth. There are obvious craters on Earth (and the moon) that prove a long history of massive objects hitting the planet. The most famous asteroid ever is the one that hit Earth 66 million years ago. The mountain-size asteroid left a crater off the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula 93 miles (146 kilometers) wide and 12 miles (19 kilometers) deep. Scientists think it created massive tsunamis and threw so much water and dust into the atmosphere that it cut off sunlight, lowered temperatures worldwide and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
What If an Asteroid Hit Earth Today?
Chances of an asteroid hitting are pretty small. NASA has tracked 90 percent of the near-Earth asteroids that are at least a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) wide and believes none of them has a significant chance of hitting Earth.
Still there could be some bigger asteroids out there that NASA doesn't know about. If a mile-wide asteroid hit Earth, it would strike the planet's surface at about 30,000 miles per hour (48,280 kilometers per hour). An asteroid that big traveling at that speed has the energy roughly equal to a 1 million-megaton bomb.
It's difficult to imagine 1 million megatons, so let's try some smaller sizes. Let's say that an asteroid the size of a house hit Earth at 30,000 miles per hour (48,280 kilometers per hour). It would have the energy roughly equal to the bomb that fell on Hiroshima — perhaps 20 kilotons. An asteroid like this would flatten reinforced concrete buildings up to half a mile from where it hit, and flatten wooden structures perhaps a mile and a half (0.8 kilometers) from ground zero. It would, in other words, do extensive damage to any city.
If the asteroid was as big as a 20-story building (200 feet [61 meters] on a side), it could have the amount of energy equal to the largest nuclear bombs made today — about 25 to 50 megatons. This size asteroid would flatten reinforced concrete buildings 5 miles (8 kilometers) from ground zero. It would completely destroy most major cities in the United States.
For an asteroid to wipe out most everything on Earth, it would have to be massive. Scientists estimate it would take an asteroid about 7 to 8 miles (11 to 12 kilometers) wide crashing into the Earth. Once it made impact, it would create a tremendous dust plume that would envelope the entire planet, block out the sun and raise temperatures where the asteroid made impact. Billions would die, and much of life on the planet would be destroyed. But, scientists believe some would survive. NASA scientists say it would take an asteroid 60 miles (96 kilometers) wide to totally wipe out life on Earth.
NASA Redirected an Asteroid
The good news is NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) robotic spacecraft launched into space in November 2021 on a sole mission to slam into the small asteroid Dimorphos at 4.1 miles (6.6 kilometers) per second to change the asteroid's orbit just slightly. And it was a smashing success. DART crashed into its target Sept. 26, 2022. But not only that. After weeks of data analysis, NASA confirmed the impact successfully altered Dimorphos' orbit. It was the first time in history humans purposely changed the motion of a celestial object.
Originally Published: Dec 4, 2007
Asteroid Hit Earth FAQ
How many asteroids have hit the Earth?
Asteroids very rarely hit Earth, but when they do, it’s called an impact event. An observed 18 asteroids hit Earth in the 20th and 21st centuries combined, though there is likely to have been many more that were too small or were simply not observed.
What is the next asteroid to hit Earth?
Asteroid Apophis, which was first discovered by scientists in 2004, is believed to have a one in 100,000 chance of hitting earth. If it were to happen, it would be in the year 2068.
Where did the largest asteroid hit the Earth?
The Chicxulub crater was formed when a large asteroid hit earth. The asteroid is believed to have been around 15 kilometers across in diameter and left a crater the size of 25,450 square kilometers that's now buried under the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.