Asteroid passing by Earth a day before the presidential election poses no real threat

A little under a month ago, news broke that an asteroid will be nearly missing Earth a day before the presidential election, further fueling the havoc 2020 entails.

The asteroid, named 2018VP1, should not weigh on the minds of citizens unless they are hoping to catch a glimpse of it burning in the Earth’s atmosphere, according to Jamie Lombardi, professor of physics at Allegheny College.

“This particular object is not something to be concerned about,” Lombardi said. “There’s about a 0.4% chance that it would get close enough to strike the atmosphere of the Earth, and it’s small enough that if it does strike the atmosphere, it’s going to burn up —  there wouldn’t be any major consequences. This may make a nice little fireball across the sky, but it would need to be several or more times bigger for it to cause windows to shatter or to have any kind of shock wave that would cause the damage.”

While 2018VP1 is closer than many other objects, it is considerably less threatening than the asteroid which passed Earth in February and received a similar or lesser amount of attention, according to Lombardi.

“The object back in February was 15 times the distance to the moon — we’re talking something like 400 to 500 Earths away, whereas this object will pass just a little bit inside the moon’s orbit,” Lombardi said. “The one back in February was about a thousand meters across, though. This new object is only about two meters across.”

While unable to cause mass destruction on Earth, as was the case with Asteroid 2002-PZ39 in February, similarly small objects present a different set of challenges for NASA to deal with.

“These asteroids, they don’t create their own light,” Lombardi said. “They’re just reflecting light that shines on them from the sun. If they’re small, there’s not a lot of area to reflect that light, so they’re very dim. It makes it hard to get precise measurements on their locations.”

Lombardi explained that dim objects are hard to track, making their paths unpredictable to experts.

“To monitor something, you really need to be able to make multiple measurements over a long period of time,” Lombardi said. “Each measurement hopefully will allow you to precisely say where the object is. But if you have a lot of uncertainty with your measurements, it’s hard to nail down.”

Lombardi explained that NASA tries their best to catalog and track every celestial object possible, but there will always be those that slip through the cracks. Large, unpredictable objects are the most threatening because once they are detected near Earth, scientists have a very brief reactionary period before a potentially catastrophic event.

“NASA is charged with trying to find as many objects as they can, especially those that are more than 150 meters in size, but what could be dangerous would be a big asteroid that we’ve missed,” Lombardi said. “Even more dangerous, a comet that comes from the outer portions of the solar system — or from outside our own solar system — because those comets might have orbital periods, which means we’ve never seen them before.”

Although NASA confirmed that 2018VP1 poses no threat to Earth on the NASA Asteroid Watch Twitter account, mainstream news outlets such as CNN toted headlines that seemed to imply the object may somehow interfere with the presidential election, scheduled for one day after the object either passes or burns up in the atmosphere.

“There shouldn’t be any concern,” Lombardi said. “It’s an independent event. There may be some conspiracy theorists who think that this is somehow connected, and that may affect those individuals’ decisions about voting, but there’s no reason that it should affect anyone’s decision.”

Professor and Robert G. Seddig Chair in Political Science Brian Harward explained that while natural disasters and other phenomena do impact voting sometimes, the event is not nearly large enough and there should be no delays.

“(It is) probably not a concern for turnout, unless it hits the U.S. and affects polling locations,” Harward said in an email to The Campus. “Natural disasters have hit just prior to elections, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I’m sure that depressed turnout, but I don’t recall the numbers. I think the (New York) and (New Jersey) Secretaries of States permitted voters to vote absentee in that circumstance.”

While disasters — even pandemics — do change what voting looks like, common things lead to decreases in voting more than those on larger scales, according to Harward.

“Mundane things, like rain and snow — anything that increases the “costs” to voting — are typically what affect turnout,” Harward said. “Historically, rain and snow increase the costs of voting, resulting in a modest — though sometimes important — decreases in turnout, especially among Democrats who feel the costs of voting more heavily than GOP voters.”

Although 2018VP1 should not lead to a decrease in turnout, Harward suggested there may be some validity to the theory.

“There’s an old saying in elections, ‘Republicans pray for rain on election day,’ and there’s some evidence that the GOP benefits electorally from inclement weather,” Harward said. “ I can’t imagine an asteroid near-miss would play out the same way.  It would likely have no effect whatsoever”