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Humongous asteroid could strike Earth in 2040

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This impact probability isn't set in stone, however. So far, researchers have been able to watch the asteroid for just a short time — the first nine months of 2011 — and the numbers may change after further observation, Yeomans told SPACE.com. [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]

"Fortunately, this object will be observable from the ground in the 2013-2016 interval," Yeomans said. In the very unlikely scenario that its impact probability does not significantly decrease after processing these additional observations, "there would be time to mount a deflection mission to alter its course before the 2023 keyhole," he added.

Keyholes are small regions in space near Earth through which a passing NEO's orbit may be perturbed due to gravitational effects, possibly placing it onto a path that would impact Earth.

Prudent course of action

2011 AG5 may zip through such a keyhole on its close approach to Earth in February 2023, which will bring the asteroid within 0.02 astronomical units (1.86 million miles, or 2.99 million kilometers) of Earth.

One astronomical unit is the average distance between Earth and sun, which is approximately 93 million miles (150 million km).

According to a JPL estimate, the 2023 keyhole — through which 2011 AG5 must pass in order for there to be a real chance of an Earth impact in 2040 – is roughly 62 miles (100 km) wide.

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