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Looks like Spirt and Opportunity (and their orbital brethren) may have excellent seats for some upcoming fireworks:

“We’re used to dealing with odds like one-in-a-million,” Chesley said. “Something with a one-in-a-hundred chance makes us sit up straight in our chairs.”

The asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, is about 160 feet across, which puts it in the range of the space rock that exploded over Siberia. That explosion, the largest impact event in recent history, felled 80 million trees over 830 square miles.

The Tunguska object broke up in midair, but the Martian atmosphere is so thin that an asteroid would probably plummet to the surface, digging a crater half a mile wide, Chesley said.

The impact would probably send dust high into the atmosphere, scientists said. Depending on where the asteroid hit, such a plume might be visible through telescopes on Earth, Chesley said.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is mapping the planet, would have a front-row seat. And NASA’s two JPL-built rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, might be able to take pictures from the ground.

And we thought we were lucky when Galileo was almost in position for Shoemaker-Levy…if it happens, this ought to make for some fun pictures, not to mention some interesting science.

It’s a pity we couldn’t steer a bunch more asteroids (or more appropriately, comets) to hit Mars. A few billion tons of water injected into its atmosphere might do wonders for near-future settlement prospects.

I’m curious, though, as to where this particular asteroid came from — is it one that astronomers have known about for a while, which was only recently perturbed? Or has it only recently appeared on the scene? If the latter, what is the likelihood that a similar asteroid could appear unexpectedly, giving us only six weeks to prepare for a possible impact (such that we could)?

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