— The Internet lit up with reports last week that a big rock was on a path to nearly strike the Earth on Monday night, Feb. 17. This was not true. But it made for a grabby headline. As in: "An Asteroid Will Almost Hit the Earth Tonight" (from Motherboard).
The British papers really went to town on this story. The Guardian ran a piece headlined "Asteroid 2000 EM26: 'potentially hazardous' space rock to fly close to Earth." Online, the story has a frightening illustration of a glowing rock plunging toward the Earth.
What did happen is that a rock discovered in 2000 and believed to be roughly 900 feet in diameter, passed by the Earth at a distance of at least 2.1 million miles. That's nearly nine times the distance to the moon. Is that "uncomfortably" close? I'd say: Not really. And it's not really news, because rocks of that size pass that close to the Earth multiple times a year - and have been doing so for billions of years.
Don Yeomans, the head of the Near Earth Object tracking program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Los Angeles Times that a rock that size can be expected to pass that close about once every six months. As you go down in the scale toward smaller rocks, you have a commensurate rise in the frequency of these rocks' "nearly hitting" the Earth.
So why was this one newsy? Because the news business is a quirky beast. The folks at Slooh, a "community" telescope service that streams stuff on the Internet, said they would be live-streaming observations of this "potentially hazardous asteroid," named 2000 EM26. That announcement raced around the Internet - as if we all needed to tune in to see if the Earth would be struck.