Scientists continue to detect dangerous asteroids near Earth, but to fully capture the threat these nearby cosmic rocks pose, they need tools that are not currently operational and may not be years ahead.
Driving the News: Last week, an asteroid big enough to destroy a city buzzing from Earth was not long after scientists noticed it.
Why this matters: Astronomers have discovered less than half of the approximately 25,000 objects on Earth
- Asteroid impacts are extremely rare, but if one of these relatively large cosmic rocks is to affect a settlement, this can cause significant urban or regional damage.
Where it stands: Because of this danger, Congress has ordered NASA to find at least 90% of the large asteroids that can hit Earth. NASA is not about to reach this goal, but it has discovered about 90% of all asteroids near Earth that are 2,881 feet or more in size.
- A report published by the National Academies in June suggests that the best way for NASA to achieve this is to use a space infrared telescope such as NEOCam.
- However, according to the new mission, there is no funding it needs.
- The NASOWA NEOWISE telescope, currently in orbit, today hunts asteroids in infrared light, but is nearing the end of its operational life and has not been designed for this purpose.
- Public studies have found that Americans believe that tracking asteroids should be a top priority for NASA.
How It Works: The discovery of asteroids in infrared light is effective because many of the cosmic rocks are dark with the naked eye but glow brightly in thermal infrared.
- The space system is also well-suited for this work because it does not rely on Earth's night time to scan the sky, NASA scientist Tom Statler told Axios.
- Instead of simply looking at optical or infrared wavelengths of light, it may also be possible one day to use artificial intelligence to select the signal from the noise to find these cosmic rocks. The Catch: Experts believe there is no method that can find, track and characterize all potentially dangerous asteroids near our planet, but instead it will be necessary to use both terrestrial and space telescopes.
- The tracking of asteroids also requires quite a bit of observation, so systems on earth will be required for these observations, even if a new telescope is launched into space.
What's next: Scientists are trying to figure out what can be done if a dangerous asteroid is found that accelerates on a collision course with Earth.
- In 2021, NASA plans to launch its DART mission to capture space rock and test asteroid deflection technology.
- "To avoid impact, you must change the asteroid's arrival time by 7 minutes; speed it up by 7 minutes or slow it down by 7 minutes, "planetary astronomer Andy Rivkin of Johns Hopkins told Axio.
Bottom line: The risk of hitting an asteroid is small, but the consequences would be high if one were
- "It's something that needs to be smart, but it's not a matter of fear," Statler said.