Lost in Space: Massive asteroid 2000 EM26 pulls vanishing act

Uh oh! It seems that we have an AWOL asteroid on our hands!

On Monday night, an asteroid roughly the size of three football fields — named 2000 EM26 — was supposed to fly by Earth. Astronomers with the Slooh Space Camera site trained their robotic telescope onto the location in the sky where the asteroid was supposed to be, so they could live broadcast the flyby to everyone over the web. However, instead of seeing the asteroid show up as a bright, steady point of light among the trailing background stars, all they saw were the stars themselves. The asteroid was missing!

Is this the perfect time to panic? Well, no.

Even though 2000 EM26 didn't show up exactly where astronomers thought it would, that doesn't mean that it's possibly hurtling towards us to cause a catastrophe. At nearly 300 metres wide and travelling at nearly 13 kilometres per second, this massive rock stands out enough that some astronomer or automated search would have picked it out as it got closer to us.

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2000 EM26 was discovered on March 5th, 2000, and over the next nine days astronomers collected around 30 observations. That's really not that many when it comes to an asteroid that size. By comparison, 70-metre-wide asteroid 2014 BR57 (which passes by us on Feb. 20th) was discovered just 22 days ago, has been observed every day since then, and already has more than twice the observations astronomers gathered for 2000 EM26. The reason for this? According to a discussion about the asteroid's vanishing act, apparently, cloudy skies in early March 2000 foiled attempts to gather more observations of the asteroid. Since more observations means a better orbit plotted by our computers, there's more uncertainty for 2000 EM26 than for most asteroids. Add the 14 years since then of this asteroid whizzing around the sun every nine months or so, and that uncertainty adds up.

This uncertainty might show up in the timing — so it either went by before we expected or it'll pass by after. It could show up in its orbital path — thus it might be shifted slightly up or down, left or right (cosmically-speaking). It's also possible (but far less likely) that what I mentioned in a 'what if' yesterday might be true — that 2000 EM26 hit some other asteroid and got knocked off course to who knows where.

You can watch the hour-long Slooh event from Monday night in this video:

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What do we do now? Well, the people at Slooh are on top of this.

"We are calling on amateur astronomers to find this asteroid, and as a reward we will promote their accomplishment on our homepage for one year," Michael Paolucci, CEO of Slooh, said in a press release. "We don’t have the authority to name the asteroid after them, but we would if we could."

The Slooh staff have given 2000 EM26 a nickname, though. They've started calling it Moby Dick, in a reference to Herman Melville's elusive whale. However, given how that particular book ended (Spoiler Alert: it's bad for everybody except the narrator and the whale), that does cast a somewhat ominous shadow over the whole situation. Maybe 'David Copperfield' would have been a better (although less literary) nickname.

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