Fact check: A Great Pyramid-sized asteroid won't slam into Earth on May 6

Scientists re-measured the asteroid's trajectory to remove all doubt.
Chris Young

What would you do if a massive asteroid was coming our way?

We've all likely enacted disaster movie scenarios in our heads. Thankfully though, we won't have to witness one on May 6, despite recent reports to the contrary.

The reports came over the weekend with news that NASA had estimated a space rock the size of the Great Pyramid was "likely" to hit Earth on May 6. Thankfully, asteroid 2009 JF1 will actually pass us by.

Asteroid 2009 JF1's risk level was recently re-evaluated

How and why did the alarm bells start to ring when it came to this particular asteroid? The answer shows just how impressive the world's asteroid detection systems are, at the same time highlighting the fact that we would currently be defenseless if a massive asteroid were to come our way.

Until recently, asteroid 2009 JF1 was on the European Space Agency Near-Earth Objects Coordination Center's notable risk list, as it was thought to have a 1 in 4,000 chance of hitting Earth during a close approach in May. However, it was removed from the top 10 in February this year.

Part of the reason behind 2009 JF1's re-evaluation is that researchers lost sight of the space rock soon after it was first discovered in 2009, meaning they weren't able to get as much data as they wanted on its orbital trajectory, though they knew it would come close to Earth. Since that time, the tools used to calculate asteroid orbits have improved and new observations allowed astronomers to re-evaluate the risk.

In a statement in February, ESA said 2019 JF1 had been "relegated [down the list] together with other more routine objects that pose minimal threat."

The new data suggests that there is now a 1 in 1,700,000 chance that 2019 JF1 will hit Earth. Not only that, but the asteroid's size was also re-estimated, showing that it is likely the size of a school bus, meaning that even if an impact scenario were likely, it would "not [be] of significant concern."

Are we prepared in the face of a civilization-ending asteroid?

While newsreaders worldwide can breathe a collective sigh of relief, the news does highlight the current lack of technology for deflecting a large asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Last year, a group of scientists from NASA and ESA collaborated to role-play a scenario in which a catastrophic collision event was detected six months before impact. They found that, with our current technology, we would not be able to avert such a disaster.

Still, we can take comfort in the fact that the probability of a civilization-ending asteroid hitting Earth is almost negligible at 0.000001% annually. What's more, NASA and other space agencies, including the China National Space Administration (CNSA), are developing technologies aimed at altering the trajectory of an asteroid. NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, in fact, will collide with a minor-planet moon orbiting the asteroid Dimorphos as soon as September this year.

Our current technology may not be advanced enough to avert disaster, but the current rate of innovation suggests we will soon be much better served than the dinosaurs when it comes to self-preservation. 

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