NASA scrambles for better asteroid detection

Feb 18, 2013 by Jean-Louis Santini
A man in Moscow looks at a computer screen displaying a picture reportedly taken in Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, showing the trail of a meteorite above a residential area of the city. NASA, universities and private groups in the US are working on asteroid warning systems that can detect objects from space like the one that struck Russia last week with a blinding flash and mighty boom.

NASA, universities and private groups in the US are working on asteroid warning systems that can detect objects from space like the one that struck Russia last week with a blinding flash and mighty boom.

But the reiterated that events like the one in the Urals, which shattered windows and injured nearly 1,000 people, are rare.

"We would expect an event of this magnitude to occur once every 100 years on average," said Paul Chodas of 's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA estimates that before entering the Earth's atmosphere above Russia, the asteroid measured 17 meters (56 feet) in diameter and weighed 10 tons.

Fragments of the asteroid caused an explosion equivalent to 500,000 tons of TNT when they hit.

The same day, a 45-meter in diameter asteroid known as 2012 14 whizzed harmlessly past the Earth, its passage overshadowed by the bright arc drawn across the Russian sky that same day.

But had it hit ground, 2012 DA14 could have obliterated a large city.

Ten years ago, NASA would not have been able to detect 2012 DA14, said Lindsey Johnson, near earth object (NEO) project manager at NASA said recently.

But he said NASA has made progress on learning how to detect small asteroids.

Johnson said there are many of these objects flying around near the Earth—say, half a million—and they are hard to track because of their small size.

In line with a goal set by Congress in 1998, NASA has already discovered and catalogued around 95 percent of the asteroids of a kilometer or more in diameter that are in the Earth's orbit around the sun and capable of causing mega-destruction.

The NEO program at NASA currently detects and tracks Earth-approaching asteroids and comets with land-based and orbiting telescopes. Scientists estimate their mass and orbit to gauge whether they pose a danger.

With this system, the in Puerto Rico, which has an antenna 305 meters in diameter, can observe with great sensitivity a third of the night sky and detect asteroids that are on the large side.

All asteroid observations made anywhere in the world by telescopes, even by amateur star gazers, must be passed on to the Minor Planet Center, which is financed by NASA and run by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory for the Paris-based International Astronomical Union.

But in times of tight budgets like these, NASA is trying to develop other systems specifically capable of tracking small objects in space.

It is financing to the tune of $5 million a project at the University of Hawaii called Atlas, or Terrestrial-Impact Alert System.

Researchers say ATLAS, which will monitor the entire visible sky every night, will be able to detect objects 45 meters (yards) in diameter a week before they hit our planet.

For those measuring 150 meters (yards) in diameter, the system—which could be operational in late 2015—will give a three week heads up.

The goal is to find the objects and give enough advance warning for measures to be taken to protect people, said John Tonry, the principal investigator at ATLAS.

The system has enough sensitivity to detect a match flame in New York City when viewed from San Francisco, for instance.

"That's enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructures and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts," according to the ATLAS website.

But NASA's efforts are deemed insufficient by former agency astronauts and scientists who last year launched a project designed to finance, build and launch the first private space telescope to track asteroids and protect humanity.

The foundation called B612 is trying to raise $450 million to build and deploy a space telescope that would be called Sentinel and placed in orbit around the sun, at a distance of 273 million kilometers from the Earth to detect most objects that are otherwise not visible.

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User comments : 28

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Yelmurc
4.3 / 5 (11) Feb 18, 2013
I think the international community should be splitting the bill on this one.
icuvd
3.7 / 5 (9) Feb 18, 2013
NASA estimates that before entering the Earth's atmosphere above Russia, the asteroid measured 17 meters (56 feet) in diameter and weighed 10 tons.

No! 10000 tons. A ball of marshmellows 56 feet in diameter would weigh more than 10 tons
wiyosaya
5 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2013
This account http://my.earthli...61b314c9 puts the explosive force at 500 kilotons. The people in the area where it struck are lucky it did not explode closer than it did. If it had, the damage could have been far worse.

I'm all in favor of early detection, however, I agree with Yelmurc in that this should be an international collaboration. A meteor that big is not discriminatory.
tigger
4.5 / 5 (15) Feb 18, 2013
How ridiculous having to scrounge the amounts of dollars being discussed here when considering budgets allocated to war and religion.

What a depressing race the human race can be sometimes :-(
baudrunner
1.4 / 5 (10) Feb 18, 2013
International efforts are all good and well, but America has a history of being self-serving. That being said, detection of possibly dangerous rogue asteroids should be at least as good as detection of incoming ICBM missiles from enemy sources. What does this say about America's readiness against a spontaneous attack by some rogue geopolitical entity? What does history teach us? And why do I keep thinking back on the fact that everybody is just in it for their paycheck, no matter where they work? Fact is, we all live from day to day, and it's a sad but certain thing that everything we read and hear we have learned to take with a grain of salt. Bomb shelters are useless after the fact.
antialias_physorg
3.1 / 5 (7) Feb 18, 2013
From Terry Pratchett's "The Last Continent"

When gods get together they tell the story of one particular planet whose inhabitants watched, with mild interest, huge continent-wrecking slabs of ice slap into another world which was, in astronomical terms, right next door – and then did nothing about it because that sort of thing only happens in Outer Space. An intelligent species would at least have found someone to complain to. Anyway, no one seriously believes in that story, because a race quite that stupid would never even have discovered slood.*

* Much easier to discover than fire, and only slightly harder to discover than water.

(For the younger among us: This is a reference to Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacting on Jupiter in 1994)
LED Guy
5 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2013
@icuvd: A 17 meter diameter ball of water would weigh almost 2600 tons. The same volume of meringue might weigh in at 10 tons.

Don't you hate when the editors pool information from a variety of sources and don't check to make sure it's consistent?
The Singularity
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2013
knee jerk not needed for such a rare occurrence.
originating
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2013
good game
Doug_Huffman
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2013
The question of 2012 AD-14 is yet to be answered. There was considerable confidence from shortly after its discovery that it would not strike. Hypothetically if the confidence would have been as high of a STRIKE, would the information have been released sooner or later? Which is worse, the panic before or the panic after? Consider the dilemma of hurricane forecasters.

In the case of detectable asteroid strikes, why even look? There is no technology in the foreseeable future to project sufficient momentum or accurately to avoid the precautionary principle.
sirchick
not rated yet Feb 18, 2013
Was its low angle able to allow it to burn up more before exploding ? it seemed reasonably low angle'd as it was going to impact.
cantdrive85
2 / 5 (7) Feb 18, 2013
There is little that could be done with such knowledge anyway. The only real solution is tempering all window glass.
Dug
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 18, 2013
Apparently, the article was written by one of the Smart Planet contributors - and is of the same typical inaccuracy. However, they are not alone. Reporters at Huffington Post and CNN describe the object as an "SUV" sized meteor. A 56 ft. diameter meteor - is more like six to eight semi-tractor trailers (40 ft. trailer plus tractor of about 16 feet.) fully loaded and all bundled together. The SUV size estimate like the weight estimation above is - just a minor discrepancy - at least in today's scientifically. illiterate media
philw1776
2.3 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2013
Why even look? Welcome to extinction. There are several alternative methods that given sufficient warning time could be employed to deflect or otherwise mitigate a body. Yes, very mass dependent. But small delta Vs over long intervals can move a body thousands of Km. Not the forum for detailed discussion of near future alternatives but the ostrich strategy will eventually have a very bad outcome. Spend the next decade looking and the next decades thereafter studying NEOs is situ and the following decades experimenting with engineering strategies.
Wayne1561
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2013
I rarely comment here but I must say the marshmallow comment is pretty much spot on... Although we can never be totally sure what exact specific gravity of that asteroid was I think some of the more accurate reports of 7, 000 metric tons is a very reasonable educated guess but if see that 10 ton value again I will just stop reading and move on!!! Marshmallows really good and well said!!!
LarryD
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2013
Yelmurc is right...well almost. Until we get away from 'money' no want's to share such a bill. The world as whole has the responsibility for survival so build a Moon station or other because it is necessary and do it, free too! Yeah, I know I'm in 'dreamland' cos it ain't gonna happen! Well, the end of the world didn't happen last December (no, I didn't believe it would anyway. Anyone else got another date we can look forward to? Here's one, the year 2160...no I'm not saying where that came from either. Ha Ha
szore88
1 / 5 (7) Feb 18, 2013
More socialist fantasies. Any detection system will be payed for by the sucker of the world: the US taxpayer.
Trenchant
1 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2013
Who's to say NASA or some other agency didn't track. If they have classified equipment that tracked it, do you think they would divulge it?
ChangBroot
1 / 5 (6) Feb 19, 2013
NASA and all other government dependent organizations used to show-off their idiots in History Channel, Science Channel etc to tell people that they are tracking thousands of asteroids/meteorites. This catastrophe showed that they were doing nothing, but tracking PLANETS not to crash with the Earth.

The Russian government and Scientists are at fault for not detecting such a huge rock. I don't expect USA to do anything good, because the least good they could do is to leave the Middle East and pay for the oil just like the rest of us, let alone detect a rock destined to hit planet Earth.
VendicarE
1 / 5 (2) Feb 19, 2013
We don't need any international effort of evil governments to protect us.

Corporations will do it. Just like they are doing it now.

And if you don't want to pay the user fee. Then that is ok. There will be no asteroid impact protection for you.

Egleton
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 19, 2013
More socialist fantasies. Any detection system will be payed for by the sucker of the world: the US taxpayer.

Sucker? Leeches more like.
Stop your whingeing. You Yanks have been paying for everything with dud notes. The $US is going the way of all fiat money.
antialias_physorg
3.2 / 5 (5) Feb 19, 2013
There are several alternative methods that given sufficient warning time could be employed to deflect or otherwise mitigate a body. Yes, very mass dependent.

The problem is also mass density.

- Will it break up under impact? Which pretty much negates impactors, since they'd just split off a part or, in the worst case, create a cloud that would just recollapse under its own gravity.

- Is it meltallic? Which pretty much negates nukes since they would just melt a bit of the surface - which then resolidifies and the whole thing ploughs on as before.

More socialist fantasies. Any detection system will be payed for by the sucker of the world: the US taxpayer.

And when a meteroite strikes they'll all come crying because the government didn't protect them. We know that spiel.

It's not a non-existing threat (unlike other non-existing threats...like 'russian/chinese invasion' on whose prevention are spent trillions upon trillions of dollars)
sirchick
4 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2013
Who's to say NASA or some other agency didn't track. If they have classified equipment that tracked it, do you think they would divulge it?


Something that small that emits no light is harder to find than a needle in a haystack by many factors. If they knew they would obviously mention it - we need to learn to prepare for these things encase it is near a more populated area like New York.

Imagine sky scraper windows smashing....you wouldn't want to be walking along the side walks.
Trenchant
1 / 5 (3) Feb 21, 2013
Sirchick you may very well have expertise in astronomy / astrophysics that I do not, but I can say from having worked in the defense industry that government technology is typically about 20 years ahead of civilian technology. If they could track with advanced technology, they would not obviously mention it.
sirchick
not rated yet Feb 25, 2013
Sirchick you may very well have expertise in astronomy / astrophysics that I do not, but I can say from having worked in the defense industry that government technology is typically about 20 years ahead of civilian technology. If they could track with advanced technology, they would not obviously mention it.


So what is the point of defence if when you find a threat you do nothing about it??

Less say you could track a small asteroid and predict the precise location of hit, and argue the temporary evacuation area was 2km by 2km im sure they would do it. They do it for hurricanes every year in southern USA.

Seems stupid might as well not bother tracking it if you track then then tell no one about an incoming hit.

They warn of old satellites coming into the atmosphere and track it with "reasonable" accuracy they ain't secret about those, so why would a piece of rock from space be more secretive? Makes no sense.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2013
Seems stupid might as well not bother tracking it if you track then then tell no one about an incoming hit.

One capability at a time. Currently we'tre developing the ability to detect/track (that ability hasn't been around for too long). THEN, when we know what types of problems are out there, we start devising schemes to shield ourselves from potential hazards.

Currently we're just in the interim stage of being able to see but not being able to do something about it (which is the nastiest place to be, but one you must pas through in any case)
sirchick
not rated yet Feb 25, 2013
Seems stupid might as well not bother tracking it if you track then then tell no one about an incoming hit.

One capability at a time. Currently we'tre developing the ability to detect/track (that ability hasn't been around for too long). THEN, when we know what types of problems are out there, we start devising schemes to shield ourselves from potential hazards.

Currently we're just in the interim stage of being able to see but not being able to do something about it (which is the nastiest place to be, but one you must pas through in any case)


True but evacuating an area if we are able to calculate it is not a stretch to imagine...keeping it secret is in no ones interest even for department of defence.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2013
There is little that could be done with such knowledge anyway. The only real solution is tempering all window glass.

I was wrong, they do have a method to destroy a meteor much higher in the atmosphere than where it exploded..

http://phys.org/n...sma.html

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