The body, named 1950 DA, was first noticed in 2002, and researchers now believe that it has a one in 19,800 chance of hitting the Earth in 2880. However even a near miss with our home planet has the potential to cause significant damage. 1950 DA has been classified as a rubble pile asteroid, which were previously defined as a collection of smaller objects held together by gravity, but which appear to be a single object from Earth.

Near Earth Asteroid

Mysterious forces at work

Following this latest research scientists have hypothesized that other forces might be at work. After analyzing the asteroid they have discovered that it is rotating faster than the breakup limit for its density. 1950 DA is one mile wide and rotates once every 2.1 hours, and centrifugal forces usually tear apart bodies rotating at that rate.

In other words, there must be other forces holding the body together apart from gravity, or it would break apart.

Ben Rozitis and his team from the University of Tennessee have theorized that the body is being held together by interparticle cohesive forces called the van der Waals, which have never been seen in asteroids before.

Near-Earth asteroid: Potential effects for the future

As well as furthering our understanding of this particular asteroid, the findings of the UT team could be used to inform future strategies for preventing asteroid impacts. The issue has been the subject of renewed interest after the asteroid impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013.

Strategies for preventing impact from single-body asteroids are different than those for “rubble pile” asteroids such as 1950 DA. Up to this point most laboratory tests have been carried out using perfectly spherical objects, but these latest findings will help inform future research into how asteroid impacts would be affected by different shapes and textures.

Let’s hope Rozitis and his team, or their planetary scientist successors, come up with a definitive solution by 2880!