Tennessee  - The date of Earth’s potential destruction has been set at 16 March 2880, when an asteroid hurtling through space has a possibility of striking our planet.

Researchers studying the rock found that its body rotates so quickly that it should break apart, but somehow remains intact on its Earth-bound trajectory.  They believe it is held together by cohesive forces known as van der Waals - and although this is considered a major breakthrough, scientists still don’t know how to stop it.

The discovery was made by researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville. Previous research has shown that asteroids are loose piles of rubble held together by gravity and friction. However, the UT team found that the asteroid, called 1950 DA, is spinning so quickly that it defies these forces.  It is approximately 3,280ft (1,000 metres) in diameter, but rotates once every two hours and six minutes. At this rate, the rock should break apart and eventually disintegrate, but it is not showing any signs of doing so.

Ben Rozitis, a postdoctoral researcher; Eric MacLennan, a doctoral candidate; and Joshua Emery, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, wanted to know what keeps the body from breaking apart. By calculating 1950 DA’s temperature and  density, the team detected the cohesive forces that stop it breaking up.

‘We found that 1950 DA is rotating faster than the breakup limit for its density,’ said Rozitis. ‘So if just gravity were holding this rubble pile together, as is generally assumed, it would fly apart. Therefore, interparticle cohesive forces must be holding it together.’ In fact, the rotation is so fast that at its equator, 1950 DA effectively experiences negative gravity.

If an astronaut were to attempt to stand on this surface, they would be flung off into space. The presence of cohesive forces has been predicted in small asteroids, but definitive evidence has never been seen before. The findings, published in this week’s edition of the science journal Nature, have potential implications for defending our planet from a massive asteroid impact.

‘Following the February 2013 asteroid impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia, there is renewed interest in figuring out how to deal with the potential hazard of an asteroid impact,’ said Professor Rozitis. ‘Understanding what holds these asteroids together can inform strategies to guard against future impacts.’This research reveals some techniques, such sending a massive object on a collision course with the asteroid, could worsen the effects.