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12/22/2007

Large Asteroid to Impact Mars in January

News From the Solar System
Mars could be in for an asteroid hit. A newly discovered hunk of space rock has a 1 in 75 chance of slamming into the Red Planet on January 30, scientists said Thursday.

"These odds are extremely unusual," said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We frequently work with really long odds when we track ... threatening asteroids."

The asteroid, known as 2007 WD5, was discovered in late November and is similar in size to an object that hit remote central Siberia in 1908, unleashing energy equivalent to a 15-megaton nuclear bomb and wiping out 60 million trees.

If the asteroid does smash into Mars, it will probably hit near the planet's equator, close to where the rover Opportunity has been exploring the Martian plains since 2004. The robot is not in danger because it lies outside the impact zone.

With the space rock moving at a speed of 8 miles (13 kilometers) a second, a collision would carve a hole into Mars the size of the famed Meteor Crater (see photo) in Arizona.

In 1994, fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (see photo) smacked into Jupiter, creating a series of overlapping fireballs in space.

Astronomers have yet to witness an asteroid impact with another planet.

Image Above: This Martian crater in the planet's northern Elysium Planitia—a volcanic area—is a little more than twice the diameter of the crater that would result from an asteroid hit in January 2008.

There's currently a 1 in 75 chance the asteroid will collide with Mars.

The crater pictured here was formed by the impact and subsequent explosion of a meteorite.

Photograph courtesy NASA/JPL/MSSS




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