How NASA Is Preparing for the Next Killer Asteroid 5 Years After Chelyabinsk
Let's be honest here. NASA and other major space agencies haven't exactly inspired confidence when it comes to defending Earth from asteroids – or even letting us know when a potentially disastrous one is closing in on the planet. In fact, they've let a lot of dangerous asteroids slip through their net in the past few years. From the house-sized Chelyabinsk meteor to more recent flybys like 2018 CC and 2018 CB, warning either comes mere days in advance... Or not at all.
What's ironic is that the day the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia (February 15th, 2013), the UN was holding major international discussions to form a new organization: the International Asteroid Warning Network. The Space Missions Planning Advisory Group was also created soon after, with one of its goals being the prevention of asteroid disasters. Since then, NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program has identified over 17,500 "objects," including asteroids. That number is a massive uptick from the figures NASA recorded for 2013, but it still represents only a fraction of what's out there. According to Kelly Fast, the manager of the NEO program:
"Thanks to upgraded telescopes coming online in recent years, the rate of asteroid discovery has increased considerably. Over 8,000 of these larger asteroids are now being tracked. However, there are over twice that number still out there to be found."
NEO's mission is identification, however, not protection. For that we must turn to the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, whose mission includes "tracking and characterizing any potentially hazardous objects, issuing warnings about potential impacts, and providing timely and accurate communications about any actual impact threat while leading the coordination of U.S. Government planning for a response." It's a tall order. The problem is that any defense against a major asteroid threat will need to start preparations years in advance. The two main methods the PDCO has for stopping an impact both involve nudging the rock out of its trajectory, a process that needs a lot of planning and advance warning.
Earth's asteroid-defense program has a long, long way to go, but take comfort in the knowledge that no asteroid currently on course to hit us within 100 years. No, the killing blow is reportedly scheduled to come on March 16th, 2880. Mark your calendars.
Cover photo: Alex Alishevskikh - Flickr/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0