September 19, 2012 – NASA Telescope Finds Less Near Earth Asteroids: New observations by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, show there are significantly fewer near-Earth asteroids in the mid-size range than previously thought. The findings also indicate NASA has found more than 90 percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids.
Astronomers now estimate there are roughly 19,500, rather than 35,000, mid-size near-Earth asteroids. Scientists say this improved understanding of the population may indicate the hazard to Earth could be somewhat less than previously thought. However, the majority of these mid-size asteroids remain to be discovered. More research also is needed to determine if fewer mid-size objects (between 330 and 3,300-feet wide) also mean fewer potentially hazardous asteroids, those that come closest to Earth.
The results come from the most accurate census to date of near-Earth asteroids, the space rocks that orbit within 120 million miles (195 million kilometers) of the sun into Earth’s orbital vicinity.
The orbiting telescope allowed astronomers to take a look at a more representative slice of the near-Earth asteroid numbers and make better estimates about the whole population. It’s like a population census, where you poll a small group of people to draw conclusions about the entire country.
WISE scanned the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light between January 2010 and February 2011, continuously snapping pictures of everything from distant galaxies to near-Earth asteroids and comets. The telescope observed more than 100 thousand asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, in addition to at least 585 near-Earth objects.
WISE captured a more accurate sample of the asteroid population than previous visible-light surveys because its infrared detectors could see both dark and light objects. It is difficult for visible-light telescopes to see the dim amounts of visible-light reflected by dark asteroids. Infrared-sensing telescopes detect an object’s heat, which is dependent on size and not reflective properties.
Though the WISE data reveal only a small decline in the estimated numbers for the largest near-Earth asteroids, which are 3,300 feet (1 kilometer) and larger, they show 93 percent of the estimated population have been found. This fulfills the initial “Spaceguard” goal agreed to with Congress. These large asteroids are about the size of a small mountain and would have global consequences if they were to strike Earth. The new data revise their total numbers from about 1,000 down to 981, of which 911 already have been found. None of them represents a threat to Earth in the next few centuries. It is believed that all near-Earth asteroids approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers) across, as big as the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, have been found.
The risk of a really large asteroid impacting the Earth before astronomers could find and warn of it has been substantially reduced.
The situation is different for the mid-size asteroids, which could destroy a metropolitan area if they were to impact in the wrong place. The WISE sky scan results find a larger decline in the estimated population for these bodies than was observed for the largest asteroids. So far, the Spaceguard effort has found and is tracking more than 5,200 near-Earth asteroids 330 feet or larger, leaving more than an estimated 15,000 still to discover. In addition, scientists estimate there are more than a million unknown smaller near-Earth asteroids that could cause damage if they were to impact Earth.
The Master of Disaster