An asteroid is going to pass close to Earth tonight, but thanks to NASA and international cooperation, we know the space rock is not going to hit our planet. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its program Scout involves observatories around the world that survey the skies to warn us about space dangers.
Scout is still a developing project, and it is being tested at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The program works using telescope from different countries to scan their data and see if there are any reports of Near Earth Objects, better known as NEOs.
The international effort has manage to find at least 15,000 NEOs, which sets a milestone in space history. Scout has confirmed and cataloged the space rocks orbiting near Earth, which will help agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency to warn people of a possible coalition.
Even when 15,000 seems like a significant number of NEOs, that number is a small part of the 700,000 that are known to be traveling in our solar system. NEOs are asteroids or comets that can be meters or kilometers long whose orbits can be a danger to planet Earth. About five asteroids are being discovered by NASA’s new project every night.
“A few decades back, 30 were found in a typical year, so international efforts are starting to pay off. We believe that 90% of objects larger than 1000 m have been discovered, but – even with the recent milestone – we’ve only found just 10% of the 100 m NEOs and less than 1% of the 40 m ones,” stated Ettore Perozzi, manager of the NEO Coordination Center at ESA’s center near Rome, Italy.
Perozzi said that the rate of NEO discoveries has been increasing in the past two years: worldwide cooperation started discovering 30 space rocks per week compared to the 30 ones spotted a year.
Tonights NEO was spotted between October 25-26 by NASA-funded Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) on Maui, Hawaii. The space rock does not represent a danger for people on Earth, but it shows how useful the Scout can project be to anticipate a catastrophe.
Detlef Koschny, heading the NEO element of the Space Situational Awareness office, explained that there is only a “tiny” impact probability for any known object in the next 40 years, but as a precaution, all of them are being studied to understand their orbits.
NEO programs not only focused on identifying potentially dangerous space rocks but also in improving warning services, including providing real-time data to main scientific bodies, international organizations and governments around the world.
ESA is a key contributor to the Scout project
ESA has used its own observatory on Tenerife in the Canary Islands to help the project. Astronomers working or related to ESA have also contributed to the project focusing on follow-up observations. Thanks to internationals cooperation, the pace of NEOs discoveries is likely to increase.
The European Space Agency is working on new telescopes called “fly eye” that will conduct automated nightly wide-sky surveys. The new telescopes are expected to be ready by 2018.
Another telescope innovation is expected more sooner: The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, being built in Chile. The device was developed to hunt space rocks in the next months.
After those telescopes begin to fully function, scientists will have a complete sky coverage and depth needed to warned people about NEOs coming too close to our planet and may be, in a far future, we will have the chance to destroy the rocks before they impact us.