Pain in the asteroid


A ludicrously overdramatic diagram of an asteroid racing towards Earth from the Mail



Some time yesterday morning, a GIANT asteroid SKIMMED PAST the Earth. Of course, you were probably aware of this from the breathtaking meteor showers, massive tsunamis, devastating volcanoes and dreary Aerosmith ballads that ravaged the planet in its wake. The asteroid, TD54, was so GIANT in fact that it was NEARLY THE SIZE OF A DOUBLE-DECKER BUS, The Mail informs us, presumably with pants wet from fright. Not even reassurances from NASA that the asteroid a) could not possibly hit Earth, b) was small enough to burn up in our atmosphere and c) that this sort of thing happens literally every day prevent the Daily Mail calling this a “close call” and a “near miss”.

Most interesting though is how the Daily Mail illustrates this article. The first image they use is a diagram from NASA of the asteroid’s route, which looks pretty to scale (though the asteroid is much, much larger than it should be) – I’ve got no problems with that one.

The second one is a pic from an article they ran a little while back. The article itself was absolutely stupid – I meant to blog on it at the time – as the Daily Mail apparently thought that the fact we discover more asteroids all the time meant the number of asteroids was increasing (they fixed it a bit since, but the captions still talk about the density of asteroids increasing). By the same logic, you could claim that the number of continents on Earth suddenly increased when America and Australia were (re)discovered.

The problem with that image in this particular article is that the Mail uses it to claim space is “congested” with asteroids – which it’s really not. It’s a small image, and to make the asteroids visible, the astronomer who created it made the asteroids much bigger than they should be – nearly the size of Earth, in fact. If you want a more accurate map, go to the nearest supermarket car park at night. Put a marble in the middle, then sprinkle a single pinch of salt across the entire car park. Those grains of salt are your near-Earth asteroids*, your marble is Earth. That’s a better picture of the Solar System.

The final image however is just brilliant. Clearly all this mundane NASA “rationality” had got on the nerves of the Mail‘s picture desk, and so they mocked up this: a terrifying asteroid RACING through space, following a bright red arrow as it plunges straight towards Mauritius. A giant speech bubble, inexplicably pointing to the arrow, yells “HURTLED WITHIN 28,000 MILES OF EARTH”, while a helpful map shows the distance from London to Sydney for scale (though for the record, it’s more like 10,500 miles, not 12,000).

Now, if you looked at that picture, you might think this asteroid was something to be scared of, so in the interests of keeping calm and carrying on, I’ve tried to produce a more accurate picture of the distances involved:


A scale diagram of objects orbitting the Earth, showing how far away the asteroid was

Click to view full size



* For the record, astronomers have a 0-10 scale for working out the risk posed by an asteroid called the Torino scale. Out of the 7,000 near-Earth objects known, there are two that do not score “0 – No risk”, they both score “1 – Normal” instead. Only one object – Apophis – has ever scored more than 2, and that has since been downgraded to “No risk” too. TD54 scored a clean zero.

  1. #1 by ukenagashi on Wednesday, 13th October 2010 - 20:52 GMT+0100

    I love both you and your illustrative powers.

  2. #2 by Press Not Sorry on Wednesday, 13th October 2010 - 20:57 GMT+0100

    An excellent post. Thank you :)

    I adore the action shot, and love The Mail’s ‘giant asteroid’ description. From The Mail comments section:

    “I saw a giant vehicle the other day driving down the street. Couldn’t believe the size of it, then i realised it was only a double decker bus, and i was greatly exaggerating”

    • #3 by atomicspin on Wednesday, 13th October 2010 - 21:15 GMT+0100

      Comments on the Mail are surprisingly good – on some types of science story. If the Daily Mail makes mistakes on a story about space, or overhypes the results of a study, the comments will usually pull them up on it. It’s just a shame they don’t do the some on vaccination scares or climate change stories.

  3. #4 by knightofthedropdowntable on Wednesday, 13th October 2010 - 22:35 GMT+0100

    That second image is even more ludicrous than you make it out to be – they make the asteroids almost as big as Earth, but considering the width of each pixel in that image represents roughly 1.8 million miles, drawing the Earth as just 1 pixel is still enormous oversized.

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