NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking System has detected five more near-earth asteroids in the past few days, after a near-miss was recorded over Christmas. While the number of large near-earth asteroids is believed to be between 500 and a thousand, not the 2000 previously estimated, it appears that the overall number of objects may be much higher than expected.
Asteroids are still being detected with very little advance notice, and being given almost no media attention at all. On December 19, 2000, Whitleysworld.com was among a very few media sources to report that earth was going to experience a near-miss in a few days. Object 2000 YA was detected on December 18, and passed within 2 lunar distances of earth on December 22nd
"The asteroid was 50 meters in diameter, so its impact would have been the same order of magnitude as the meteorite that hit Siberia in 1908," said Sir Crispin Tickell in an address to the Royal Geographical Society. The Siberia meteorite devastated an enormous area, knocking trees flat. No deaths resulted, since it was an uninhabited part of the world. "If that Siberia meteorite had hit London or Tokyo, there wouldn?t have been very much left," said Ticknell. Sir Crispin said this reinforces the importance of increased spending on telescopes that can monitor objects in space. "We only heard about this asteroid two or three days in advance, which would not have given us much time to take action if an impact was imminent," he warned. "The first problem is identification. Finding an object this size in space is not easy. We need to be watching the skies far more closely." The NEAT system is a an advance over previous methods, but it has not yet found all near-earth asteroids, and near-misses are obviously still possible.
Given the sudden increase in numbers of objects detected in 2000, it is also possible that there are many more small to medium-sized asteroids in the area of earth than had previously been thought. Even a relatively small object could do enormous damage, because of the tremendous energies released during a high-speed impact.
Most governments are more prepared for a nuclear attack than a meteor impact, Ticknell said. Possible interventions include using a space vehicle to move an incoming asteroid off course. We could also blow up an object in space, as was done in the recent film Deep Impact.
"This is not a fantasy," Ticknell stated. "We are the only animal species which would have this amazing capability within its grasp."
For the near-miss story as reported by the general media on January 4, click here.
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