An asteroid may be heading for a collision with earth, reports a group of researchers including Washington State University’s Scott Hudson. Fortunately, the actual probability of a collision is only one-third of one percent, and we have 878 years to prepare.

In an article in the April 5 Science, scientists predict that Asteroid 1950 DA, about one kilometer in diameter, could hit earth in March 2880. Typically, it is very difficult to predict asteroid collisions this far into the future. However, by obtaining radar imagery of the asteroid, the researchers were able to model in detail the evolution of its orbit for the next several centuries.

Although Asteroid 1950 DA was discovered in 1950, researchers lost track of it, re-discovering it on New Year’s Eve 2000. Its potentially nefarious nature was uncovered in the course of a recent radar experiment.

Hudson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has worked to better understand the exact shape and orientation of asteroids and to develop computer models that more accurately predict their orbits. He worked for 15 years to develop the computationally intensive computer software to look at scattering of radio waves, from which he can then determine the shape and orientation of asteroids. Such work has been made possible by advances in computing power in the past decade.

Hudson is quick to mention that no human being has ever been killed by an asteroid collision and that numerous other natural and manmade hazards are of more concern. Nevertheless, the possibility of a collision remains an intriguing question for scientists because of the potentially catastrophic effects. The work also is of interest because asteroids can provide valuable clues to the origin and evolution of our solar system.