If you checked the news recently, you probably noticed that a bunch of outlets are claiming that an asteroid is heading towards Earth. The implication, of course, is that it's not just heading towards us; it might hit us. Cue the sensationalism and fear and terror. Want to know what the headlines look like? Here you go...

Headlines From This Morning:

This is what you get right now if you do a Google News search for "asteroid" and "Earth."

Honestly, if every asteroid that was "heading towards Earth" actually hit us, life would never get a chance to evolve because the system would be resetting every few months. Or at the very least, most of us would probably be having continual stress-induced heart attacks.

Really though, by now, we shouldn't even need to debunk this. We should all be familiar with the drill: A new asteroid is discovered (in this case, a Russian scientist discovered an asteroid known as 2014 UR116). And, of course, at some point during its orbit, it is going to come closer to Earth than it is right now, which means that it is entirely accurate to say "Scientists discover asteroid heading towards Earth." The problem, of course, is that it's not entirely clear just how close the object will come to Earth. In fact, the title makes it sound like it is going to hit us.

However, that's kind of the point, isn't it? If the title doesn't give you that information, then you will need to actually click the link to check.

Well, as it turns out, this asteroid isn't going to get any closer than 5 million kilometers or so, which is 10 times farther away than the Moon (that's pretty far, given this context).

NASA clearly outlines that the object poses no threat:  "Some recent press reports have suggested that an asteroid designated 2014 UR116, found on October 27, 2014, at the MASTER-II observatory in Kislovodsk, Russia, represents an impact threat to the Earth,” NASA wrote (one can only assume that they were talking about headlines like the one from The International Business Times in the U.K., which read, "Massive asteroid on collision course with Earth").

NASA continues, “While this approximately 400-meter sized asteroid has a three-year orbital period around the sun and returns to the Earth’s neighborhood periodically, it does not represent a threat because its orbital path does not pass sufficiently close to the Earth’s orbit…Any statements about risk for impact of discovered asteroids and comets should be verified by scientists and the media by accessing NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) program web site.”

So NASA is pretty clear about the threat (or lack thereof). So why is there so much commotion? Why is there this lovely piece from The Independent: "A mountain-sized asteroid could hit Earth within the next 150 years, causing huge damage if it collides with the planet as it spins around it every three years."

What?!

First, tops spin. Ballerinas spin. And yes, the asteroid is spinning. But it doesn't spin around the Earth. It revolves. In science, "spin" is a form of angular momentum, so its use here is fundamentally wrong. And second, yes, it technically could hit us. Except that that chances are negligible. But despite the fact that a collision is highly unlikely, you decided to make the mere possibility the focal point of your article. I mean, its also possible that, sometime in the next 150 years, I write an article about you in which I praise your journalistic integrity, but I wouldn't go on the record and say that. I certainly wouldn't make it a headline, because the chances of it happening are so abysmally low.

Now I usually don't get too riled up over terminology. If you say "spin," so what? We know what you mean. I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, we are all far from perfect. We all make mistakes. But that's the thing, we make mistakes. A mistake is an accident. It is an error that your correct and try to avoid in the future. A mistake is not writing an article about an asteroid that might hit Earth, and then sticking in quotes from NASA refuting these claims as though they were some silly aside. That is not a mistake. That is a rhetorical choice, and it is a bad one.

But it certainly won't be the last time that we see this. So. Until next time...

 


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