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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A recently launched NASA probe will gather information that might save Earth from being smashed by an asteroid, a University of Tennessee geologist said Tuesday.

 Dr. Hap McSween, head of geology at UT-Knoxville, said data from NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous probe will tell us more about the composition of asteroids and could help avert a disaster.

 An Earth-asteroid collision has happened in the past and could again, McSween said.

“We need to understand as much as possible about asteroids if we are to have any hope of avoiding collisions.”

 The NASA probe will be the first to orbit an asteroid when it circles Eros for a year. Eros is one of the largest asteroids orbiting the sun relatively close to Earth.

 The probe will come within 10 miles of Eros’ surface, providing new data on mass, density and composition of asteroids.

 “If we know what asteroids are made of, we have a better idea of what it would take to somehow deflect them or blow them into small bits,” McSween said. “Knowing whether it is made of iron or rock would be very important.

“Asteroids aren’t hostile neighbors. These collision are rare. But Earth and Eros are neighbors that we have been largely ignoring — at our own peril — for a long time.”

 Current asteroid data — from light-wave analysis, remote sensing and meteorites — is sketchy and would not help prevent a collision, McSween said.

 “Right now, we don’t have the technology to save ourselves. We would have such a short notice that we wouldn’t be able to respond,” he said.

 “But that will change as we do systematic catalogs, and start tracking and computing asteroids’ future orbits. This mission is the first attempt to get the quantitative information we need.”

 Contact: Dr. Hap McSween (423-974-2366)