Scientists Thought They Could Predict Asteroids Striking Earth. They Can’t.


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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Scientists once thought it was possible to predict asteroid strikes millions of years into the future, but new research casts doubt on that belief.

They long suspected that asteroids could hit Earth at higher-than-usual rates every 26 million years, but a new study that examined impact craters over the last 500 million years found they didn’t match into 26-million-year-cycle hypothesis.

“This question has been under discussion for more than thirty years now,” Dr. Matthias Meier, a scientist at the  Zurich Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology, said in a press statement. “We have determined, however, that asteroids don’t hit the Earth at periodic intervals.”

U.S. researchers came to the opposite conclusion in a 2015 study. They found impact craters suggested major asteroids tended to hit Earth once roughly every 26 million years. The reoccurring impacts and ensuing mass extinction events were driven by a dim companion star to our sun, scientists found.

This star, named Nemesis after the Greek goddess of revenge, would theoretically orbit around the sun every 26 million years, redirecting the orbits of asteroids to bombard Earth. Under this theory, the next apocalyptic asteroid will hit Earth in 10 million years. Researchers have never found Nemesis, but such a star would be exceedingly difficult to detect.

Asteroids big enough to cause a mass extinction should be roughly 0.6 miles in diameter. NASA outright admits there’s not much the agency could do to stop such an asteroid on a collision course with Earth without a five-year warning.

Former NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters in 2013 that the only response to a “surprise” asteroid on a collision course with Earth is to “pray.”

In a recent “wargame,” NASA and other federal agencies was unable to launch a deflection mission before a simulated asteroid hit Earth in 2020, causing the “city-killer” to eventually slam into the ocean just off Southern California. Federal Energy Management Agency personnel were forced to coordinate a simulated mass evacuation of the metropolitan Los Angeles area due to a potential tsunami and impact damage.

Global asteroid detection programs found more than 15,842 near-Earth objects of all sizes: 333 new near-Earth objects were identified this year alone, according to International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planets Center. These newly discovered near-Earth objects are part of a much larger population of more than 700,000 known asteroids in our solar system.

The federal “omnibus” budget approved last November includes $50 million for near-earth object observation and planetary defense, up from just $4 million in 2010.

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