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

The Next Generation of Exploration: The NEOCam Mission

In February of 2014, NASA put out the call for submissions for the thirteenth mission of their Discovery Program. In keeping with the program’s goal of mounting low-cost, highly focused missions to explore the Solar System, the latest program is focused on missions that look beyond Mars to new research goals. On September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, which included proposals for sending probes back to Venus, to sending orbiters to study asteroids and Near-Earth Objects.

Among the proposed NEO missions is the Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam. Consisting of a space-based infrared telescope designed to survey the Solar System for potentially hazardous asteroids, the NEOCam would be responsible for discovering and characterizing ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs that have discovered to date.

If deployed, NEOCam will begin discovering approximately one million asteroids in the Main Belt and thousands of comets in the course of its 4 year mission. However, the primary scientific goal of NEOCam is to discover and characterize over two-thirds of the asteroids that are larger that 140 meters, since it is possible some of these might pose a threat to Earth someday.

The NEOCam space telescope will survey the regions of space closest to the Earth's orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids are most likely to be found. NEOCam will use infrared light to characterize their physical properties such as their diameters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the NEOCam spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA’s Discovery program that would search for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The technical term is Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO), and it applies to near-Earth asteroids/comets that have an orbit that will allow them to make close approaches to Earth. And measuring more than 140 meters in diameter, they are of sufficient size that they could cause significant regional damage if they struck Earth.

In fact, a study conducted in 2010 through the Imperial College of London and Purdue University found that an asteroid measuring 50-meters across with a density of 2.6 grams per cubic centimeter and a speed of 12.7 kps could generate 2.9 Megatons of airburst energy once it passed through our atmosphere. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about nine W87 thermonuclear warheads!

By comparison, the meteor that appeared over the small Russian community of Chelyabinsk in 2013 measured only 20 meters across. Nevertheless, the explosive airbust caused by it entering our atmosphere generated only 500 kilotons of energy,  creating a zone of destruction tens of kilometers wide and injuring 1,491 people. One can imagine without much effort how much worse it would have been had the explosion been six times as big!

What’s more, as of August 1st, 2015, NASA has listed a total of 1,605 potentially hazardous asteroids and 85 near-Earth comets. Among these, there are 154 PHAs believed to be larger than one kilometer in diameter. This represents a tenfold increase in discoveries since the end of the 1990s, which is due to several astronomical surveys being performed (as well as improvements in detection methods) over the past two and a half decades.

The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a result, monitoring and characterizing which of these objects is likely to pose a threat to Earth in the future has been a scientific priority in recent years. It is also why the U.S. Congress passed the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” in 2005. Also known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2005”, this Act of Congress mandated that NASA identify 90% of all NEOs that could pose a threat to Earth.

If deployed, NEOCam will monitor NEOs from the Earth–Sun L1 Lagrange point, allowing it to look close to the Sun and see objects inside Earth’s orbit. To this, NEOCam will rely on a single scientific instrument: a 50 cm diameter telescope that operates at two heat-sensing infrared wavelengths, to detect the even the dark asteroids that are hardest to find.

By using two heat-sensitive infrared imaging channels, NEOCam can also make accurate measurements of NEO and gain valuable information about their sizes, composition, shapes, rotational states, and orbits. As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission,  explained:

“Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.”

Dr. Mainzer is no stranger to infrared imaging for the sake of space exploration. In addition to being the Principal Investigator on this mission and a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she is also the Deputy Project Scientist for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Principal Investigator for the NEOWISE project to study minor planets.

She has also appeared many times on the History Channel series The Universe, the documentary featurette “Stellar Cartography: On Earth”, and serves as the science consultant and host for the live-action PBS Kids series Ready Jet Go!, which will be debuting in the winter of 2016. Under her direction, the NEOCam mission will also study the origin and ultimate fate of our solar system’s asteroids, and finding the most suitable NEO targets for future exploration by robots and humans.

Proposals for NEOCam have been submitted a total of three times to the NASA Discovery Program – in 2006, 2010, and 2015, respectively. In 2010, NEOCam was selected to receive technology development funding to design and test new detectors optimized for asteroid and comet detection and discovery. However, the mission was ultimately overruled in favor of the Mars InSight Lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2016.

As one of the semifinalists for Discovery Mission 13, the NEOCam mission has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. In September of 2016, one or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations), and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

In related news, NASA has confirmed that the asteroid known as 86666 (2000 FL10) will be passing Earth tomorrow. No need to worry, though. At its closest approach, the asteroid will still be at a distance of 892,577 km (554,000 mi) from Earth. Still, every passing rock underlines the need for knowing more about NEOs and where they might be headed one day!

We are not Alone: Government Sensors Shed New Light on Asteroid Hazards

How hazardous are the thousands and millions of asteroids that surround the third rock from the Sun – Earth? Since an asteroid impact represents a real risk to life and property, this is a question that has been begging for answers for decades. But now, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have received data from a variety of US Department of Defense assets and plotted a startling set of data spanning 20 years.

This latest compilation of data underscores how frequent some of these larger fireballs are, with the largest being the Chelyabinsk event on February 15, 2013 which injured thousands in Russia. The new data will improve our understanding of the frequency and presence of small and large asteroids that are hazards to populated areas anywhere on Earth.

On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. "It was an incredible feeling," Jenniskens said. The African Nubian Desert meteorite of Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)
On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. “It was an incredible feeling,” Jenniskens said. The meteorite which impacted in the Nubian Desert of Africa on Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. Meteorite 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk’s are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)

The data from “government sensors” – meaning “early warning” satellites to monitor missile launches (from potential enemies) as well as infrasound ground monitors – shows the distribution of bolide (fireball) events. The data first shows how uniformly distributed the events are around the world. This data is now released to the public and researchers for more detailed analysis.

The newest data released by the US government shows both how frequent bolides are and also how effectively the Earth’s atmosphere protects the surface. A subset of this data had been analyzed and reported by Dr. Peter Brown from the University of Western Ontario, Canada and his team in 2013 but included only 58 events. This new data set holds 556 events.

The newly released data also shows how the Earth’s atmosphere is a superior barrier that prevents small asteroids’ penetration and impact onto the Earth’s surface. Even the 20 meter (65 ft) Chelyabinsk asteroid exploded mid-air, dissipating the power of a nuclear blast 29.7 km (18.4 miles, 97,400 feet) above the surface. Otherwise, this asteroid could have obliterated much of a modern city; Chelyabinsk was also saved due to sheer luck – the asteroid entered at a shallow angle leading to its demise; more steeply, and it would have exploded much closer to the surface. While many do explode in the upper atmosphere, a broad strewn field of small fragments often occurs. In historical times, towns and villages have reported being pelted by such sprays of stones from the sky.

NASA and JPL emphasized that investment in early detection of asteroids has increased 10 fold in the last 5 years. Researchers such as Dr. Jenniskens at the SETI Institute has developed a network of all-sky cameras that have determined the orbits of over 175,000 meteors that burned up in the atmosphere. And the B612 Foundation has been the strongest advocate of discovering of all hazardous asteroids. B612, led by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweikert has designed a space telescope called Sentinel which would find hazardous asteroids and help safeguard Earth for centuries into the future.

Speed is everything. While Chelyabinsk had just 1/10th the mass of Nimitz-class super carrier, it traveled 1000 times faster. Its kinetic energy on account of its speed was 20 to 30 times that released by the nuclear weapons used to end the war against Japan – about 320 to 480 kilotons of TNT. Briefly, asteroids are considered to be any space rock larger than 1 meter and those smaller are called meteoroids.

Two earlier surveys can be compared to this new data. One by Eugene Shoemaker in the 1960s and another by Dr. Brown. The initial work by Shoemaker using lunar crater counts and the more recent work of Dr. Brown’s group, utilizing sensors of the Department of Defense, determined estimates of the frequency of asteroid impacts (bolide) rates versus the size of the small bodies. Those two surveys differ by a factor of ten, that is, where Shoemaker’s shows frequencies on the order of 10s or 100s years, Brown’s is on the order of 100s and 1000s of years. The most recent data, which has adjusted Brown’s earlier work is now raising the frequency of hazardous events to that of the work of Shoemaker.

The work of Dr. Brown and co-investigators led to the following graph showing the frequency of collisions with the Earth of asteroids of various sizes. This plot from a Letter to Nature by P. Brown et al. used 58 bolides from data accumulated from 1994 to 2014 from government sensors. Brown and others will improve their analysis with this more detailed dataset. The plot shows that a Chelyabinsk type event can be expected approximately every 30 years though the uncertainty is high. The new data may reduce this uncertainty. Tungunska events which could destroy a metropolitan area the size of Washington DC occur less frequently – about once a century.

The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 - black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The full caption is at bottom. (Credit: P. Brown, Letter to Nature, 2013, Figure 3)
The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 – black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The full caption is at bottom. (Credit: P. Brown, Letter to Nature, 2013, Figure 3)

Asteroids come in all sizes. Smaller asteroids are much more common, larger ones less so. A common distribution seen in nature is represented by a bell curve or “normal” distribution. Fortunately the bigger asteroids number in the hundreds while the small “city busters” count in the 100s of thousands, if not millions. And fortunately, the Earth is small in proportion to the volume of space even just the space occupied by our Solar System. Additionally, 69% of the Earth’s surface is covered by Oceans. Humans huddle on only about 10% of the surface area of the Earth. This reduces the chances of any asteroid impact effecting a populated area by a factor of ten.

Altogether the risk from asteroids is very real as the Chelyabinsk event underscored. Since the time of Tugunska impact in Siberia in 1908, the human population has quadrupled. The number of cities of over 1 million has increased from 12 to 400. Realizing how many and how frequent these asteroid impacts occur plus the growth of the human population in the last one hundred years raises the urgency for a near-Earth asteroid discovery telescope such as B612’s Sentinel which could find all hazardous objects in less than 10 years whereas ground-based observations will take 100 years or more.

Reference:
New Map Shows Frequency of Small Asteroid Impacts, Provides Clues on Larger Asteroid Population

Full Caption of the included plot from LETTERS TO NATURE, The Chelyabinsk airburst : Implications for the Impact Hazard, P.G. Brown, et al.

The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 – black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The brown-coloured line represents an earlier powerlaw fit from a smaller dataset for bolides between 1 – 8 m in diameter15. Error bars represent counting statistics only. For comparison, we plot de-biased estimates of the near-Earth asteroid impact frequency based on all asteroid survey telescopic search data through mid- 2012 (green squares)8 and other earlier independently analysed telescopic datasets including NEAT discoveries (pink squares) and finally from the Spacewatch (blue squares) survey, where diameters are determined assuming an albedo of 0.1. Energy for telescopic data is computed assuming a mean bulk density of 3000 kgm-3 and average impact velocity of 20.3 kms-1. The intrinsic impact frequency for these telescopic data was found using an average probability of impact for NEAs as 2×10-9 per year for the entire population. Lunar crater counts converted to equivalent impactor flux and assuming a geometric albedo of 0.25 (grey solid line) are shown for comparison9, though we note that contamination by secondary craters and modern estimates of the NEA population which suggest lower albedos will tend to shift this curve to the right and down. Finally, we show estimated influx from global airwave measurements conducted from 1960-1974 which detected larger (5-20m) bolide impactors (upward red triangles) using an improved method for energy estimation compared to earlier interpretations of these same data.