A large asteroid will pass uncomfortably close to Earth later this month.
NASA wouldn’t have been able to stop it from colliding with us if it had been on a collision course.
“We are lucky,” Dr. Joseph A. Nuth, a senior asteroid scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“This asteroid was discovered in 2014 – just three years ago,” he said. “Had it been heading for the Earth, there would have been very little that we could do to prevent an impact.”
The 2,000-foot-wide asteroid, called JO25, will miss Earth by only 1.1 million miles on April 19, according to NASA. There is no possibility the asteroid to collide with Earth, but it’s taking an extremely close approach for a rock that size.
“Asteroid impact is the only catastrophic natural disaster we know that has a chance for us to prevent if we detect it far enough in advance,” Lindley N. Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, told TheDCNF.
“How long it takes is very dependent on the size of the asteroid and the orbit that it is in – some orbits are almost impossible to get to in a timely manner without planetary gravity assist maneuvers, which of course take months to achieve,” Johnson said.
Nuth told TheDCNF that deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with Earth would require at least five years notice. Nuth was careful to say this was his personal opinion, not the formal position of NASA.
Johnson said it could take four to five years to build a spacecraft capable of intercepting the asteroid — not including the time it would take that craft to reach the asteroid. The cost of such a mission could be as high as $750 million or more.
“If the asteroid is small enough, simple disruption – breaking it up into small enough pieces for Earth’s atmosphere to handle – may be adequate, but for an object the size of JO25 this would not be effective and we’d almost certainly want to modify its orbit to a safe distance by imparting it a change in its orbital velocity,” Johnson said.
“For an object this size, multiple kinetic impactor hits would probably be necessary; a nuclear standoff orbit deflection may be the only option,” he said.
In a recent war game, NASA and other federal agencies were unable to deflect a simulated asteroid on course to hit Earth with four years of warning.
The “city-killer” asteroid landed off the Southern California coast. Federal Energy Management Agency personnel were forced to coordinate a simulated mass evacuation of the Los Angeles area to mitigate the damages of a potential tsunami.
In the event an asteroid does hit Earth, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office would work with FEMA, the Department of Defense and other agencies to coordinate disaster responses.
Congress approved $50 million for near-earth object observations and planetary defense in 2016, up from just $4 million in 2010.
“Of course we can eliminate some reviews and testing and greatly compress the time to design and build the interceptor so that we might have been ready to launch around now,” Nuth told TheDCNF. “But do you really want to do such a rush job on the design, build, test and launch of the single spacecraft that would be relied upon to save a continent?”
The best way to protect Earth from asteroids is developing early warning systems and speeding up response times, Nuth said.
“There are two important lessons from this – and two intertwined solutions,” Nuth said. “First, we need to detect all such threats as early as possible. Second, we need to be able to respond to such threats much more rapidly than is currently possible with interceptor spacecraft that are highly reliable.”
Global asteroid detection programs found more than 16,072 near-Earth objects of all sizes — 568 new near-Earth objects were identified this year alone, according to International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planets Center.
NASA has an ground-based program to find and catalog all large asteroids capable of significantly damaging Earth, but scientists say a space-based infrared observatory would be better for the task.
NASA and its European partners focus on finding objects of at least 459 feet in diameter, which are large enough to devastate whole cities.
A small asteroid barely missed Earth in February, just hours after scientists first spotted it. The asteroid got within 32,200 miles of the Earth,or about 7.6 times closer than the moon.
“While our efforts have already found about 95% of the largest near-Earth asteroids – those larger than 1 kilometer in size – in the almost 20 years of NASA’s effort to date only about 30% of those larger than 140 meters have been found,” Johnson said. “To find the rest using the current level of survey capabilities will take many more decades and we will remain vulnerable to a sizable unwarned impact during that period.”
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