SCIENCE

Will NASA's New Asteroid Intruder Alert System Warn Us In Time Of Incoming Danger?

With 15,000 space rocks in our galactic vicinity, Earth is a sitting duck for an eventual collision.
Computer art of an asteroid approaching Earth.
Computer art of an asteroid approaching Earth.

Do you lie awake at night fearing the possibility that life as we know it could suddenly end if Earth is hit by an asteroid or comet? With the intention of preventing that from happening, the good folks at NASA have devised a collision-bound asteroid early detection system.

Utilizing constantly fed data supplied by global telescopes, this Near Earth Asteroid Scout computer program, or NEAScout, searches for any growing threat to Earth from an approaching space rock.

Earlier this week, when an asteroid came close to Earth, the Scout system calculated it would pass our planet by more than 300,000 miles without posing a risk, reports NPR.

Then, as luck would have it, another asteroid approached Earth on Tuesday, mere hours after it was first spotted by astronomers.

That particular space rock, estimated at 23 to 72 feet wide, and speeding along at 48,000 mph, missed us by about 50,000 miles. The object, dubbed 2016 VA, is the bright dot in the center of the following image, as it was viewed by the Virtual Telescope Project.

The dot in the center of this image is near-Earth asteroid 2016 VA, as it was viewed on Nov. 1, 2016 by the Virtual Telescope
The dot in the center of this image is near-Earth asteroid 2016 VA, as it was viewed on Nov. 1, 2016 by the Virtual Telescope Project.

According to a statement by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California:

The number of discovered near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) now tops 15,000, with an average of 30 new discoveries added each week. This milestone marks a 50 percent increase in the number of known NEAs since 2013.

It is estimated by astronomers that only about 27 percent of the NEAs that are 460 feet and larger have been found to date. Congress directed NASA to find over 90 percent of objects this size and larger by the end of 2020.

“The NASA surveys are finding something like at least five asteroids every night,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Paul Chodas told NPR.

“When a telescope first finds a moving object, all you know is it’s just a dot, moving on the sky. You have no information about how far away it is. The more telescopes you get pointed at an object, the more data you get, and the more sure you are how big it is and which way it’s headed. But sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to make those observations,” said Chodas.

With so many asteroids out there, the time element involved with any of them approaching Earth can be crucial.

“Objects can come close to the Earth shortly after discovery, sometimes one day, two days, even hours in some cases,” JPL navigation engineer Davide Farnocchia told NPR. “The main goal of Scout is to speed up the confirmation process.”

But with 15,000 near-Earth asteroids in our galactic vicinity, it seems like our planet is a prime target just waiting to be hit.

In fact ― and this isn’t meant to worry you ― yet another asteroid, approximately 120 feet wide, “will fly by Earth harmlessly on Friday,” according to the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center.

Hollywood has provided many imagined scenarios where earthlings are faced with threats of the worst possible magnitude. Some examples include “When Worlds Collide” (1951); “Meteor” (1979); “Deep Impact” (1998); “Armageddon” (also 1998); and “Meteorites” (a 1998 TV movie).

NASA realizes that we can’t just sit back and test our luck and assume Earth will never see the calamity depicted in so many science fiction presentations.

But even with the excellent technology at our disposal, there’s no guarantee that we can avoid an impact with an asteroid. We’re left with some pretty big questions: If Scout detects a large asteroid heading in our direction ― one that could result in the same type of extinction of life that theoretically caused the demise of the dinosaurs ― what do we do about it? How do we prepare for it? Can we even prepare for it? Is there already an international cooperative plan or strategy to destroy or deflect the course of an asteroid that’s targeting our home world? And if there is some Earth-saving plan, what if it doesn’t work? Is the human race finished?

At the very least, NASA does have a plan to avert this potential planetary disaster. It’s called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment Mission, or AIDA.

According to a NASA statement:

AIDA will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impact technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space. AIDA is a dual-mission concept, involving two independent spacecraft ― NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test and the European Space Agency’s Asteroid Impact Mission.

AIDA’s primary objective is to demonstrate, and to measure the effects of, a kinetic impact on a small asteroid. Its target is the binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos, which consists of a primary body approximately 800 meters across, and a secondary body (or “moonlet”) whose 150-meter size is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose a more common hazard to Earth.

This outer space “test” begins with the launch of both spacecraft in late 2020, and they’ll arrive at the test targets in 2022. Let’s hope none of the 15,000 asteroids in our neighborhood find their way to Earth before this deflection demonstration is deemed a success.

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