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HUGE ASTEROID TO MAKE CLOSE PASS BY EARTH.

Byline: David L. Chandler The Boston Globe

An asteroid about a third of a mile across - detected by astronomers only Wednesday - will whizz by Earth at about 9:48 a.m. Sunday in a dramatic near-miss.

The object, the largest ever observed passing so close, could produce devastation greater than anything in recorded history if it made a direct hit. It will miss Earth by only about 279,000 miles, in astronomical terms a very close call.

There is no chance of an actual collision, scientists said Friday. Since the asteroid's discovery, astronomers at several observatories have carefully monitored its position and precisely calculated its four-year orbit around the sun.

It will come closer to Earth than all but five other objects ever detected - but not quite so close as the moon. Another recently discovered asteroid, perhaps three-quarters of a mile across, is expected to pass within 1.9 million miles of Earth next Saturday.

Timothy Spahr, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Florida who made the latest discovery, said in an interview Friday from the observatory outside Tucson that if an object of this size were to collide with Earth, ``it would be very bad, but it wouldn't wipe out everything.''

If it were on a collision course, the asteroid, called 1996 JA-1, might leave a crater several miles wide if it struck land, devastating an area perhaps hundreds of miles across. If it struck in the ocean, it would produce tsunamis that would travel many hundreds of miles and devastate coastlines with waves towering nearly 200 feet high.

The impact, astronomers calculate, might produce a blast equivalent to 3,000 to 4,000 megatons of TNT - almost as much as all of the world's nuclear bombs going off at once - according to calculations by astronomer Duncan Steel of the Anglo-Australian Observatory, which he posted on the Internet on Friday.

The asteroid is about one-tenth the diameter of the object believed to have collided with Earth and caused global devastation 65 million years ago, killing off all the dinosaurs and most other living plants and animals by shrouding the Earth with dust for several years.

James Scotti, an astronomer in Tucson who is part of another team scanning the skies for asteroids that might collide with Earth someday, said this object is probably just below the threshold size at which an impact could cause global havoc.

But it is far larger than any of the other ``near-miss'' objects recorded, all of them spotted in the last five years.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 18, 1996
Words:422
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