Anyone who’s driven a car is surely familiar with the idea of blind spots – areas around you where you can’t see easily, and therefore, are particularly vulnerable to threats. This principle applies just as easily to asteroid hunting. As telescope technology continues to advance, astronomers have used their telescopes to peer into areas near our solar system that are normally difficult to observe.
“This study shows that we still have a long way to go in discovering and tracking asteroids that could hit Earth.”
This brings us to recent telescopic observations at the Inter-American Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. As scientists published in September in The Astronomical Journal, there are three near-Earth asteroids (or NEAs) lurking in the sun’s glare, which had apparently gone unnoticed before. These particular asteroids lurk between the orbits of Earth and its closest neighbor to the Sun, Venus. One of them is the largest potentially dangerous NEA spotted in eight years.
The discovery is particularly alarming because it suggests that there are potentially dangerous uncatalogued asteroids that humanity has missed in its quest to catalog and identify possible civilization-destroying asteroids or comets. In particular, the recently discovered asteroid called 2022 AP7 is orbiting the Sun in such a way that it could one day pass and strike Earth.
The B612 Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on protecting the planet from the impacts of hazardous space objects, aims to prevent humanity from suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs. “This study shows that we still have a long way to go in discovering and tracking asteroids that could hit Earth,” said Dr. Ed Lu, three-time NASA astronaut and executive director of the B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute. . “We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but that technology is only useful if we can first discover and track asteroids.”
The good news, as Lu told Salon, is that “the vast majority (but not quite) of the asteroids large enough to wipe out human civilization have already been tracked.” Yet there are many untracked asteroids that are smaller and, while not large enough to constitute an extinction event, could still wipe out millions of lives; these include asteroids of a size that could wipe out a city. Lu noted that these types of space rocks “are thousands of times more numerous,” yet we only know of a “small percentage.”
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Policy makers have sometimes attempted to fill this knowledge gap. When they do, however, they end up learning more about the urgency of humanity’s need for more information about all kinds of near-Earth objects.
“In 2005, the US Congress tasked NASA with finding 90% of all near-Earth objects (NEOs) larger than 140 meters, the size of a football stadium,” Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb wrote to Living room. “At present, no known asteroid over 140 meters in size has a significant chance of hitting Earth in the next century. However, less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects 140 meters and larger have been found so far. “
“Less than half of the estimated 25,000 [Near Earth Asteroids] which measure 140 meters and more have been found to date.”
According to Lu, more efforts are being made to continue spotting asteroids like these three recently detected NEAs between the orbits of Venus and Earth. Thanks to the construction of new observatories such as the Vera Rubin Observatory (also in Chile) and the development of new computational techniques such as those produced by the Institute of Asteroids, “within a few years we expect to increase considerably our ability to track asteroids and provide decades of warning of potential impacts,” Lu told Salon.
If nothing else, the discovery of asteroid 2021 PH27 – about a kilometer in size and, as Loeb noted, “which has the closest approach to the Sun, 13% of the separation Earth-Sun, and the greater precession due to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, known for any body in the solar system” — justifies the use of this new technology.
“Accelerating the pace of asteroid discovery requires funding, whether from an organization like B612 or NASA,” B612 Foundation President Danica Remy wrote in Salon. “We must, collectively, both fund and champion the development of advanced computing tools and new observational capabilities.”
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