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Scientists Startled by 'City-Killer' Asteroid That Almost Hit Earth This Week

Although you're hopefully not losing any sleep over the fact that a doomsday asteroid could strike Earth at any time and wipe out life as we know it...

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Although you're hopefully not losing any sleep over the fact that a doomsday asteroid could strike Earth at any time and wipe out life as we know it, it's still comforting to know experts have sophisticated tracking systems and plans to knock them off course if necessary. Or at least so we believed... until it was discovered that scientists were caught off guard by a "city-killer" asteroid that came startlingly close to our planet earlier this week. 

In what was a sobering reminder that we are but a speck at the mercy of the all-powerful universe, scientists discovered a huge asteroid was on course to pass dangerously close to Earth only days before it did so on Thursday, July 25. The space rock, which has been dubbed Asteroid 2019 OK and measures up to 427 feet wide, came within 45,000 miles of our planet, according to The Washington Post. To put that in perspective, that's less than one-fifth the distance between us and the Moon. 

Typically, they're able to spot asteroids on track to be in such close proximity well ahead of time, but this one proved particularly tough to notice.

“It snuck up on us pretty quickly,” said Michael Brown, an associate professor in Australia with Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, per WaPo. “People are only sort of realizing what happened pretty much after it’s already flung past us.”

The asteroid was evidently discovered only days before it was set to make its close pass and information about its size and path was announced just hours beforehand. Brown said that the asteroid's eccentric orbit and speed were factors in it going undetected. An animated model of its brush past our Pale Blue Dot was shared widely on Twitter. 

"It shook me out my morning complacency,” Brown said. “It’s probably the largest asteroid to pass this close to Earth in quite a number of years.”

Asteroids of this magnitude are frequently dubbed "city-killer asteroids" since even a chunk of them reaching the ground is enough to do incredible damage, according to Alan Duffy, the lead scientist at the Royal Institution of Australia. 

“It would have gone off like a very large nuclear weapon” he told WaPo. “Many megatons, perhaps in the ballpark of 10 megatons of TNT, so something not to be messed with.”

Fortunately, scientists are hard at work developing more advanced asteroid-detection systems and engaging in global preparedness drills. But this is still an alarming wake-up call, according to Duffy. 

“It should worry us all, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s not a Hollywood movie. It is a clear and present danger.”

Anyway, have a great weekend! 

h/tThe Washington Post

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow him @jwmcgauley.