“Ahh! A giant asteroid is going to pass within one earth radius of our home planet! We’re doomed, doomed I sa- Wait, what? It’s just the European satellite Rosetta? Never mind…”
The above is a transcription of the thoughts of Space Radar Operator No. 4 at the Minor Planet Center last week. The organization, responsible for naming all asteroids, had actually named an unidentified object that would come within 5,600 km of the Earth, enough to do some serious damage. Along with other national and university-based astronomers, the MPC had been tracking the asteroid for a week with increasing concern. They were about to issue a wide media release announcing of our impending doom when Russian astronomer Denis Denisenko noticed that the “asteroid” had the same flight path as Rosetta. The satellite was launched in spring of 2004 by the European Space Agency to take a close look at a distant comet. It will be using the classic Star Trek “slingshot” method (known to space people as “gravity assist“) to get there. It will, in fact, be making three orbits of the Earth and one of Mars to get up to speed.
The entire MPC retired to a corner with a cup of tea, muttering about the lack of available information on man-made object trajectories.