2021 QM1: How Humanity’s Riskiest Asteroid Nearly Escaped Astronomers


Gordon Gillet/ESO

We’re safe for now, folks! 2021 QM1, an asteroid previously expected to hit Earth on April 2, 2052, has been removed from global risk lists. This enlightening revelation is due to the skillful observation of The European Southern Observatory’s Very large telescope (VLT), one of the world’s most advanced astronomical observatories.

Discovered on August 28, 2021 by the Mount Lemmon Observatory, north of Tucson Arizona, 2021, the discovery of QM1 was initially harmless — after all, about a dozen new near-Earth asteroids are discovered every night. However, routine follow-up observations from telescopes around the world slowly began to reveal a very glaring threat.

Richear Moissl, Head of Planetary Defense for the European Space Agency (ESA), said: “These early observations gave us more information about the asteroid’s path, which we then projected into the future.”

“We could see its future paths around the sun, and it could get dangerously close to Earth by 2052. The more the asteroid was observed, the greater that risk became.”

2021 QM1 continued to take precedence on the ESA’s risk list as data grew, an unusual event as data generally narrows uncertainties, showing that asteroids are safe after all.

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However, as the risk continued to increase and the need for information about the asteroid grew, an unfortunate cosmic alignment took place. As the asteroid’s path brought it closer to the sun, the sun’s glare made the asteroid impossible to detect. As QM1’s orbit in 2021 moved it further from Earth, ESA astronomers feared that, between the sun’s glare and the asteroid’s orbit, the asteroid would be too faint to image and no new data would be released. could be established.

As a result, on the night of May 24, astronomers knew all too well that they had a very short time to spot one of humanity’s greatest threats. To make matters worse, the 2021 QM1 passed through a part of the sky lit by the Milky Way. Essentially, the VLT was tasked with identifying a faint and fading asteroid against a backdrop of the second-largest galaxy in the Local Group.

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“These would turn out to be some of the trickiest asteroid observations we’ve ever made,” explains Olivier Hainaut, senior astronomer at ESO

However, the result of the May 24 photos was positive — a clear detection of the faintest asteroid ever seen. Indeed, 2021 QM1 was 250 million times fainter than the faintest stars available to the naked eye in a dark spot. The data from the VLT was enough to refine the asteroid’s path and rule out the possibility of an impact in 2052.

As the ESA reports, one down, thousands more to go. More than a million asteroids have been discovered in the solar system, and nearly 3,000 of them pass near Earth. While the threat of QM1 2021 is no longer looming, telescopes of ever-increasing power may still detect an impending collision in the distant future.

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