That asteroid that flew by earlier today may have been 17,200 miles away from Earth, but scientists say the event should be considered a wakeup call. I mean, a ten ton space rock exploded over Russian skies today and left a warpath in its wake—asteroid 2012 DA14 is estimated to be 140,000 tons. Something that immense could do even more damage.
Scientists say there are tens of thousands of undiscovered objects “roaming [Earth’s] neighborhood,” and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a life-threatening impact. It’s unlikely something will occur anytime soon, but we only need refer to our planet’s history to get an idea of what can happen. As early as 65 million years ago a 6-mile-wide asteroid struck Earth and completely wiped out the dinosaurs.
NASA currently has eyes on up to 90 percent of near Earth asteroids that exceed 0.6 miles wide—big enough to threaten humanity—but scientists say there are thousands of smaller rocks nearby that could become a threat. Making matters worse, astronomers believe there are more than 1 million near-Earth threats currently flying through space.
What’s making it so difficult to track these rocks is something we rely on to survive: the sun. Spotting asteroids between Earth and the sun is particularly troublesome because the blinding glare makes it nearly impossible to see the relatively tiny floating rocks. One possible solution, as proposed by Paul Dimotakis of Caltech in Pasadena, California, is to “place an asteroid-hunting telescope near the orbit of Venus,” where it would be much easier to avoid the sun’s incredible shine.
A space telescope is actually being developed, known as Sentinel, which could launch in 2017 or 2018. Astronomers estimate Sentinel could spot as many as 500,000 near-Earth asteroids in just 5 1/2 years of operation.
“Rather than playing the odds of time, wouldn’t it be far better to be able to know, with some reasonable certainty, that we’ve cataloged the entire population of potentially hazardous asteroids?” Dan Durda, Southwest Research Institute researcher said.
Indeed. With space rocks unexpectedly breaking through Earth’s orbit without warning, we’ll need all the eyes we can get watching what’s out there in the massive vacuum of space.