The Hunt For Near-Earth Asteroids Heats Up After 2012 EC Passes Earth
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
An asteroid that was only discovered Saturday (Mar. 2) has made a run by Earth in the early hours of March 5, some 250,000 miles away. While the asteroid is being associated with last month’s Russian meteor in respect to its mass, the two bodies are not linked in any other way.
The asteroid, 2012 EC, was detected by Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon Observatory and astronomers calculated its trajectory, confirming the object would not make an impact of Earth. The asteroid passed at a relatively safe distance, about as far away as the moon.
Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project, observed the asteroid live when it was about twice the distance of the moon.
Masi said, as cited by Universe Today, “That we are finding all these asteroids recently does not mean that we are being visited by more asteroids, just that our ability to detect them has gotten so much better. Our technology has improved a lot over the past decades.”
“Over the years, our ability to find these small asteroids increases, this is why we count more and more, as time goes,” said Masi, as quoted by Mail Online. “Hopefully, the surveys surfing the skies to find them will have better and better funding, as well as space missions to hunt for them from space and projects to mitigate any potential collision risk.”
Asteroid 2012 EC is just one of more than a hundred thousand asteroids discovered since Ceres by Italian Catholic Priest Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. Ceres was originally described as a planet, but was later re-dubbed as a dwarf planet, and is one of the largest asteroids ever found, roughly 590 miles across. By comparison, 2012 EC is just 50 feet wide.
One of the most unsettling discoveries made, was that of the asteroid 99942 Apophis, nicknamed the ‘doomsday asteroid.’ Apophis was first observed by the ESA’s Herschel space observatory in 2004, when astronomers gave it a 2.7 percent chance that it could strike Earth in 2029. However, more careful research dismissed that claim, and further calculations claim it will miss us in 2036 as well.
With so many asteroids being discovered as of late, it only makes sense to study them further. A few mining firms have already signed on to take part. One such firm, Deep Space Industries, is developing a spacecraft called “Firefly” that will launch in 2015 and explore near-Earth asteroids up close and personal.
Planetary Resources is also looking to jump into the asteroid mining game, stating its prospecting spacecraft should be ready for asteroid hunting when it launches its Arkyd-100 telescopes in 2014 or 2015. With financial backing by Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Planetary Resources will likely have all the resources it needs to make it happen.
Such spacecraft could potentially gain insight about the composition of asteroids that could assist governments in their efforts to deflect large, near-Earth asteroids from making impact.
“Placing 10 of our small Firefly spacecraft into position to intercept close encounters would take four years and less than $100 million. This will help the world develop the understanding needed to block later threats,” said Deep Space Industries’ CEO David Gump in a statement, cited by International Business Times.
“The technology Planetary Resources develops to characterize and mine space rocks will also help protect Earth by giving us the infrastructure to routinely and swiftly interact with and move asteroids, like 2012 DA14, which could someday pose a threat to Earth,” Peter Diamandis, the company co-founder and co-chair said in a statement.
Asteroid 2012 DA14, of course, was the close-passing cosmic visitor on February 15, which passed above Earth closer than the geosynchronous satellites that orbit the planet. That asteroid followed a meteor that exploded over Russia’s Ural Mountains earlier that morning, leading to a shockwave that blew out windows across six cities and injuring more than 1,000 people.
Just a day later, another report surfaced of a meteor lighting up the night sky in San Francisco and another meteor explosion, albeit much smaller than the Russian event, over the skies of Cuba.
While these cosmic events are in no way associated with one another, they do not lend to any less unsettling of one’s nerves, as explained below:
First, the Earth is a cosmic battering ram for meteors that currently no observatory can detect before slamming into the atmosphere, creating calamity above and, for some, below. Second, some asteroids are only detected just days before they make near-Earth passes. And third, there are currently no measures that can be utilized to protect the planet from dangerous asteroids that may one day impact Earth, potentially leading to an extinction event.
However, one plan has been proposed that looks at harnessing the energy of the sun to gently nudge asteroids and meteors out of an Earth-impacting trajectory in the future. The DE-STAR project could also be used to obliterate asteroids over time, using the sun to create powerful lasers, zapping the harmful objects to bits.
If ever proven feasible, such a device could shield us from an asteroid similar to the one that slammed into the planet 65 million years ago, about the same time when all dinosaurs were wiped off the face of the Earth. Until then, there is little humans can do but sit, watch and wait.
To return to a more optimistic attitude, researchers stated they have identified 95 percent of the nearly 1,000 huge space rocks anticipated to have a near-Earth approach and none of them have a trajectory that will impact Earth in the future.
NASA has been at the forefront of such studies and will continue to dedicate themselves in the search for all potential hazardous space rocks out there. The B612Foundation also plans to step up to the plate and add an eye to the sky in search of cosmic orbiters.