Walter Cronkite Joins the Firmament

Legendary TV journalist Walter Cronkite's most memorable impact on society may actually happen eons in the future. A California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomer announced today that she has named an asteroid after Cronkite--an asteroid whose orbit could someday bring it on a collision course with Earth.

Caltech astronomer Eleanor Helin discovered the asteroid 6 years ago today. Roughly 2 to 3 kilometers wide, the asteroid circles the sun every 4 years in an elliptic orbit. Helin is not sure what 6318 Cronkite is made of, but its orbit suggests it's a burned-out comet that has lost its gas. Don't think for a second, however, that Cronkite is being dissed by being linked to a degassed chunk of stellar flotsam. Asteroids that swing so close to Earth have a rich pedigree, says Helin, in that they are "normally named, by tradition, for gods or goddesses." In the field of journalism, at least, Cronkite has attained that status.

But the illustrious appellation could someday live in infamy. Asteroid Cronkite's highly inclined orbit is bringing it closer and closer to Earth. "The possibility is, it may make a big impact in the far distant future," says Helin, although she declines to speculate if a collision could occur thousands or millions of years from now. If 6318 Cronkite does descend on Earth millennia from now, that will be a truly newsworthy event.