An extinction-level asteroid that could someday hit Earth has been found hiding near Venus
Those who have driven a car are certainly familiar with the idea of blind spots – the areas around you where you cannot see easily and are thus extremely vulnerable to threats. This principle applies to asteroid hunting just as easily. Like telescope technology continues to advanceastronomers have used their scopes to peer into those nearby regions of our solar system that are normally difficult to observe.
“This study shows that we still have a ways to go to detect and track asteroids that could hit Earth.”
This brings us to the latest telescopic observations in Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Like the scientists there published in September in The Astronomical Journal, there are three near-Earth asteroids (or NEAs) hiding in the sun’s glare that apparently haven’t been spotted before. These particular asteroids lurk between the orbits of Earth and its nearest neighbor to the Sun, Venus. One of them is the largest potentially dangerous NEA spotted in eight years.
The finding is particularly alarming because it suggests that there are some uncatalogued potentially dangerous asteroids that humanity has missed in its quest to catalog and identify possible civilization-destroying asteroids or comets. In particular, the newly discovered asteroid, called 2022 AP7, is orbiting the Sun in such a way that it could someday cross over and hit Earth.
The B612 Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on protecting the planet from impacts by dangerous space objects, focuses on preventing humanity from suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs. “This study shows that we still have a ways to go to detect and track 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 technology to deflect asteroids, but that technology is only useful if we can first detect and track asteroids.”
The good news, as Lu told Salon, is that “the vast majority (but not all) of the asteroids large enough to destroy 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, can still destroy millions of lives; these include asteroids the size of which could destroy a city. Lu noted that these types of space rocks “are thousands of times more numerous,” and yet we only know about a “small percentage” of them.
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Politicians sometimes try to compensate for this lack of knowledge. When they do, however, they only learn more about the urgency of humanity’s need for more information about all kinds of near-Earth objects.
“In 2005 US Congress mandated NASA to find 90% of all Near Earth Objects (NEOs) larger than 140 meters, the size of a football stadium,” Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb wrote to Salon. “Currently, no known asteroid larger than 140 meters has a significant chance of hitting Earth in the next century. However, less than half of the estimated 25,000 NEOs that are 140 meters and larger have been discovered to date.”
“Less than half of the estimated 25,000 [Near Earth Asteroids] which are 140 meters in size and larger have been discovered so far.”
According to Lu, more efforts are being made to continue spotting asteroids like those three NEAs recently discovered 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 Asteroid Institute, “within a few years we expect to greatly increase our ability to track asteroids and provide many decades of warning about potential impacts,” Lu told Salon.
If nothing else, the discovery of asteroid 2021 PH27 — roughly one kilometer in size and, as Loeb noted, “which has the closest approach to the Sun, 13% of the distance between Earth and the Sun, and the largest precession resulting from Einstein’s Theory for the general theory of relativity known for every body in the solar system”—justifies the use of this new technology.
“Accelerating the rate of asteroid discovery requires funding, whether it’s for an organization like B612 or NASA,” B612 Foundation President Danica Remy wrote to Salon. “We, collectively, must both fund and advocate for the development of advanced computational tools and new observational capabilities.”