Good News Everyone! There are Fewer Deadly Undiscovered Asteroids than we Thought

Beyond Earth’s orbit, there are innumerable comets and asteroids that are collectively known as Near-Earth Objects. On occasion, some of these objects will cross Earth’s orbit; and every so often, one will pass too close to Earth and impact on its surface. While most of these objects have been too small to cause serious damage, some have been large enough to trigger Extinction Level Events (ELEs).

For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have spent decades cataloging and monitoring the larger NEAs in order to determine if they might collide with Earth at some point in the future. The only question has been, how many remain to be found? According to a recent analysis performed by Alan W. Harris of MoreData! – a California-based research company – only a handful of NEAs haven’t been catalogued yet.

These findings were the subject of a presentation made this week at the 49th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Provo, Utah. As Harris indicated during the presentation, titled “The Population of Near-Earth Asteroids Revisited”, previous estimates of the remaining NEAs have been plagued by a consequential round-off error that have skewed the results.

Artist’s concept of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer as its orbit around Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL

The source of this error has to do with how organizations that monitor NEOs determine “size-frequency distribution”. Basically, estimates are given in terms of number versus brightness, since most discovery surveys were conducted in the visible spectrum. This is not a reliable way of determining size though, since asteroids don’t all have the same albedo (aka. reflectivity).

As such, NEA brightness is expressed in units of absolute magnitude (H), where lower numbers indicate brighter objects. The IAU Minor Planet Center – which is responsible for maintaining information on asteroid and other small-body measurements – rounds off the reported values of H to the nearest 0.1 magnitude. As Harris explained during the course of his presentation:

“So, for example, a bin from H of 17.5 to 18.0 is really from 17.55 to 18.05, or 17.45 to 17.95, depending on which side of the bin you take “less than or equal to” rather than ‘less than’.”

While this has not caused much in the way of problems in the past, it has become significant as far as assessments of how many larger objects remain to be found are concerned. Harris first became aware of the potential for problems this past year after Dr. Pasqual Tricario – a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute – conducted a study that produced estimates different from those obtained by Harris and Italian astronomer Germano D’Abramo two years before.

This graphic shows asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/JHU

The 2015 study conducted by Harris and D’Abramo – which appeared in Icarus under the title “The population of near-Earth asteroids” – yielded an estimate of 990 NEAs that were larger than 1 km in diameter. However, Tricario’s study (“The near-Earth asteroid population from two decades of observations“, also published in Icarus), which was based on the opposite “less than or equal to” assumption, produced estimates that were 10% lower.

As Harris explained, this prompted D’Adramo and him to considered a different approach. “We corrected the problem for the current analysis by choosing bin boundaries at .05 magnitudes, e.g. 17.25 to 17.75, so the 0.1 round-off thresholds naturally put objects in the right bin,” he said. “When Tricarico and I each made these corrections, our population estimates fell into almost perfect agreement.”

After applying the correction, Harris and D’Abramo’s overall estimate of undiscovered NEAs dropped from 990 to 921 ± 20. Beyond allowing for consistency between different studies, these corrected estimates also reduced the total number of undiscovered objects that remain undiscovered. According to the latest tallies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 884 NEAs that are about 1 km in diameter have been discovered so far.

Based on the previous population estimate of 990 objects, this implied that the current surveys are 89% complete and 106 were yet to be found. When the corrections were applied to these numbers, JPL’s surveys now appears to be 96% complete, and only 37 objects remain to be found (almost three times less). Naturally, these new estimates depends on their own sets of assumptions, and different results can be obtained based on different criteria.

NASA is getting much better at discovering and detecting NEOs. Credit: NASA/NEO Program.

Still, a reduced estimate of undiscovered asteroids is definitely encouraging news. Especially when one considers how hazardous large asteroids are to the safety and well-being of life here on Earth. As of October 3rd, 2017, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) announced that there are a total of 157 potentially hazardous asteroids out there. Knowing that only a few more need to be found is bound to help some of us sleep at night!

Future studies are also expected to benefit from the deployment of next-generation missions. Thanks to the efforts of NASA’s Near-Earth-Object WISE (NEOWISE) mission, which looks for NEOs in the infrared band (rather than visible light), that number of known NEOs has increased substantially. With the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, those numbers are expected to reach even higher.

Between improvements in technology and methodology, a day may yet come when all Near-Earth Objects – be they big or small, potentially hazardous or harmless – are accounted for. Combined with asteroid defenses, like directed-energy beams or robots spacecraft capable of attaching themselves to asteroids and redirecting them, Extinction Level Events might very well become a thing of the past.

Further Reading: The Spaceguard Center

Nope, our Temporary Moon Isn’t Space Junk, it’s an Asteroid

In April of 2016, astronomers became aware of a distant object that appeared to be orbiting the Sun, but was also passing close enough to Earth that it could be periodically viewed using the most powerful telescopes. Since then, there has been ample speculation as to what this “Temporary Moon” could be, with most astronomers claiming that it is likely nothing more than an asteroid.

However, some suggested that it was a burnt-out rocket booster trapped in a near-Earth orbit. But thanks to new study by a team from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, this object – known as (469219) 2016 HO3 – has been confirmed as an asteroid. While this small near-Earth-asteroid orbits the Sun, it also orbits Earth as a sort of “quasi-satellite”.

The team that made this discovery was led by Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Their research was also made possible thanks to NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program. This program is maintained by NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) and provides grants to institutions dedicated to the research of NEOs.

2016 HO3 is an asteroid that appears to orbit around Earth due to the mechanics of its peculiar orbit around the sun. Credit: NASA-JPL

The details of this discovery were presented this week at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences in Utah at a presentation titled “Ground-based Characterization of Earth Quasi Satellite (469219) 2016 HO3”. During the course of the presentation, Reddy and his colleagues described how they spotted the object using the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) at the LBT Observatory on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona.

According to their observations, 2016 HO3 measures just 100 meters (330 feet) across and is the most stable quasi-satellite discovered to date (of which there have been five). Over the course of a few centuries, this asteroid remains at a distance of 38 to 100 lunar distances – i.e. the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Reddy explained in a UANews press statement, this makes the asteroid a challenging target:

“While HO3 is close to the Earth, its small size – possibly not larger than 100 feet – makes it challenging target to study. Our observations show that HO3 rotates once every 28 minutes and is made of materials similar to asteroids.”

Discovering the true nature of this object has also solved another big question – namely, where did 2016 HO3 come from? For those speculating that it might be space junk, it then became necessary to determine what the likely source of that junk was. Was it a remnant of an Apollo-era mission, or something else entirely? By determining that it is actually an NEO, Reddy and his team have indicted that it likely comes from the same place as other NEOs.

Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona’s Lunar Planetary Laboratory. Credit: Bob Demers/UANews

Reddy and his colleagues also indicated that 2016 HO3 reflected light off its surface in a way that is similar to meteorites that have been studied here on Earth. This was another indication that 2016 HO3 has similar origins to other NEOs (some of which have entered our atmosphere as meteors) which are generally asteroids that were kicked out of the Main Belt by Jupiter’s gravity.

“In an effort to constrain its rotation period and surface composition, we observed 2016 HO3 on April 14 and 18 with the Large Binocular Telescope and the Discovery Channel Telescope,” Reddy said. “The derived rotation period and the spectrum of emitted light are not uncommon among small NEOs, suggesting that 2016 HO3 is a natural object of similar provenance to other small NEOs.”

But unlike other NEOs which periodically cross Earth’s orbit, “quasi-satellites” are distinguished by their rather unique orbits. In the case of 2016 HO3, it has an orbit that follows a similar path to that the Earth’s; but because it is not dominated by the Earth’s gravity, their two orbits are out of sync. This causes 2016 HO3 to make annual loops around the Earth as it orbits the Sun.

Artist’s impression of a hypothetical astronaut mission to an asteroid. Credit: NASA Human Exploration Framework Team

Christian Veillet, one of co-authors of the presentation, is also the director of the LBT Observatory. As he explained, this characteristic could make “quasi-satellites” ideal targets for future NEO studies:

“Of the near-Earth objects we know of, these types of objects would be the easiest to reach, so they could potentially make suitable targets for exploration. With its binocular arrangement of two 8.4-meter mirrors, coupled with a very efficient pair of imagers and spectrographs like MODS, LBT is ideally suited to the characterization of these Earth’s companions.”

Similarly, their orbital characteristic could make “quasi-satellites” an ideal target for future space missions. One of NASA’s main goals in the coming decade is to send a crewed mission to a Near-Earth Object in order to test the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System. Such a mission would also help develop the necessary expertise for mounting missions deeper into space (i.e. to Mars and beyond).

The study of Near-Earth Objects is also of immense importance when it comes to determining how and where as asteroid might pose a threat to Earth. This knowledge allows for advanced warnings which can potentially save lives. It is also significant when it comes to the development of proposed counter-measures, several of which are currently being explored.

And be sure to enjoy this video of 2016 HO3’s orbit, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Further Reading: UANews