Asteroid to make close encounter with Earth

AN ASTEROID up to half a mile wide was due to have brushed past the Earth early today, approaching almost as close as the Moon.

In astronomical terms, that counts as a near miss, but scientists who had been tracking the path of asteroid 2004 XP14 were not worried as it approached at about ten miles per second.

Nevertheless, the body has been classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) along with 782 known others.

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The object, discovered in December 2004, is one of a class of "Apollo" asteroids, whose orbits cross that of the Earth. Initially there were concerns that the body might collide with Earth later this century.

However, further analysis has ruled this out - at least for the foreseeable future.

If XP14 did hit the Earth the effects would be devastating. "It would probably be big enough to wipe out a small country," said Dr David Asher, from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.

"At least we knew about this asteroid. We should be more worried about the unknown ones.

"There are quite a lot of them flying around out there in space that have still to be discovered."

Scientists hope to gather valuable information about the asteroid by bouncing radar signals off it from the 230ft diameter Goldstone dish in California's Mojave desert.

The asteroid was expected to make its closest approach to Earth at 5:25am today.

At that moment it should have been 268,624 miles away, or almost the Moon's average distance from Earth.