Imagine a house-sized asteroid coming for you out of nowhere. Now try to process that this actually happened.
On a gray morning in 2013, that asteroid exploded with an ear-shattering sonic boom over Chelyabinsk, Russia. This was not just a blip on astronomical radar. It released the energy of 440,00 tons of TNT, blasting windows and damaging buildings over 200 square miles and littering the city with shards of glass that injured over 1,600 people.
“The Chelyabinsk event drew widespread attention to what more needs to be done to detect even larger asteroids before they strike our planet,” NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said. “This was a cosmic wake-up call.”
The United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Working Group on Near-Earth Objects was meeting on the exact same day that asteroid crashed down to Earth. As if that wasn’t enough cosmic irony, the committee was finalizing a recommendation to the UN on how to do the next best thing to activating superhuman powers to defend Earth from any incoming asteroids or other hazardous objects. Anything with an orbit within 5 million miles of Earth qualifies as a hazardous object.
Though it was too late for Chelyabinsk, the meeting spawned the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), which keeps a telescopic eye on objects in space that could threaten our planet, and the Space Missions Planning Group (SMPAG), an international forum that allows space agencies to join forces and find ways to prevent another epic collision.
Enter the NEO Observations program. Around the time of the blast, NASA was expanding this program to spread awareness of suspicious asteroids. It aims to find at least 90 percent of those those upwards of 460 feet, which are devastation just waiting to strike, and catch them early enough to mitigate impact or possibly deflect them back into space.
How is the program doing? As of January, over 17,500 near-Earth objects have been identified.
“Thanks to upgraded telescopes coming online in recent years, the rate of asteroid discovery has increased considerably,” said NASA NEO Observations Program manager Kelly Fast. “Over 8,000 of these larger asteroids are now being tracked. However, there are over twice that number still out there to be found.”
NASA’s NEO Observations Program became a primary element of the PDCO when it was established in 2016. PDCO relies on the program for data from projects that track asteroids and other objects that could be on a collision course with our planet. The PDCO also communicates with the government about these threats, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to simulate different impact scenarios and responses, plan emergency measures in the case of a potential crash, and send out warnings if something gets too close.
You can never have enough backup when dealing with killer asteroids. NASA eventually wants to be able to deflect them all, which is how the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) came into being. This mission will take off into space in 2021 and attempt to pull off the kinetic-impact technique for redirecting an asteroid headed for Earth. Until then, at least we know NASA passed its first tracking test last year on that asteroid we almost thought was going to slam into us.
There shouldn’t be another Chelyabinsk-level asteroid for another century—but if it’s out there, NASA will find it.