[The following story appeared in the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette on May 18, 1996, from the Associated Press.]
TUCSON, Ariz. - An asteroid about a third of a mile in diameter bypassed Earth about noon Sunday [May 19] at a distance about the same as between the earth and the moon, two University of Arizona students say.
Timothy Spahr, an astronomy graduate who now attends the University of Florida, and Carl Hergenrother, a University of Arizona senior majoring in atmospheric sciences, discovered the asteroid only Wednesday, having recorded it on film two nights earlier. It was announced officially on Friday.
Spahr and Hergenrother said there was no chance it could have hit Earth but that in passing within about 279,000 miles it should be considered a near miss in astronomical terms.
They and other astronomers who have plotted its course since its discovery say that makes its approach the sixth-closest known. And at between 300 and 500 meters in diameter, it's larger than any of the other five near-approach objects, they said.
Those five range from 5 meters to 100 meters in diameter.
This asteroid, known as 1996 JA1, is roughly 10 times the size of the object that produced Meteor Crater in northeastern Arizona and about one-10th the size of the one believed to have killed all dinosaurs and most other living things when it struck Earth 65 million years ago.
"This asteroid wouldn't destroy civilization if it hit Earth, but it sure would mess things up," Spahr said.
He and Hergenrother found it using the University of Arizona's 16-inch telescope on Mount Bigelow in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. Since then astronomers at other observatories have confirmed it, figuring its orbit around the sun at four years.
Were it to hit Earth, astronomer Duncan Steel of the Anglo-Australian Observatory told colleagues Friday via the Internet, the impact might be the equivalent of 3,000 to 4,000 megatons of TNT, a blast nearly equal to all of the world's nuclear bombs going off at one. Another recently discovered asteroid, perhaps three-quarters of a mile across, is expected to pass within 1.9 million miles of Earth on May 25.
The telescope Spahr and Hergenrother have used sporadically since 1992 in their Bigelow Sky Survey points where others don't, 35 degrees above the plane of the solar system.
"We were told when we started this project that we would never find anything interesting," Hergenrother said. "But this object would not have been found had we been looking along the ecliptic (plane) with everyone else.
"The telescope is not easy to use," he added, "but we will continue the project as long as there is film."
Stephen M. Larson, a senior research associate at the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and one of those who confirmed the asteroid discovery, supplies the film and supervises the survey.
Original file name: .CNI - Asteroid Flyby 5.20
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