NASA’s Scout System Detects An Asteroid Heading Towards Earth Tonight!

Ahmed Bilal
Posted Oct 30, 2016
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Astronomers are constantly on the lookout for anything that might be in any way affecting the Earth. One of those things are space rocks that pass near our planet, and later tonight a similar large space rock is going to come relatively close to the Earth. There’s no need to panic because the astronomers are pretty certain that the rock will not hit Earth.

The space rock was detected using NASA’s new computer program that is being developed to detect potentially dangerous asteroids. The program is called Scout and it is being currently tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The task that Scout has is to scan data from telescopes and report any unusual activity that might include “Near Earth Objects” such as the one later tonight. Think of the program as a lookout for celestial bodies that might be potentially dangerous.

Scout detected an object heading towards Earth a few days ago

When Scout finds any such potential intruder it makes quick calculations of whether the Earth is at risk. It follows up that calculation by using observations from other telescopes too and then makes a judgment whether the risk is real or not. Several telescopes that are paid by NASA to scan the skies each night to look for similar objects. “The NASA surveys are finding something like at least five asteroids every night,” says astronomer Paul Chodas of JPL.

The real art is to figure out whether the object might hit Earth or not.

“When a telescope first finds a moving object, all you know is it’s just a dot, moving on the sky,” says Chodas. “You have no information about how far away it is. “The more telescopes you get pointed at an object, the more data you get, and the more you’re sure you are how big it is and which way it’s headed. But sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to make those observations.

“Objects can come close to the Earth shortly after discovery, sometimes one day, two days, even hours in some cases,” says JPL’s Davide Farnocchia. “The main goal of Scout is to speed up the confirmation process.”

asteroid

The large rock that will buzz past the Earth would miss us by about 310,000 miles. The rock was discovered by the NASA funded Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) on the night of 25th-26th October. Scout did the initial survey of the range that the rock would miss Earth by and then additional observations by three different telescopes confirmed this data. The object is estimated to be between 5-25 meters across according to the astronomers and you can find out the full details about the trajectory of the object here.

Scout looks out for smallish near Earth objects

Scout is still in its testing phase right now and will become fully functional later this year. While Scout deals with smallish very near Earth objects, another system that assists Scout and is already operational is Sentry. Sentry’s job is to identify the objects that are very large and might do much more damage if they hit Earth in the next hundred years. “Our goal right now is to find 90 percent of the 140 meter asteroids and larger,” says Chodas. But right now they are only able to find around 30 percent of the total estimated population of the objects of that size.

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That number is very low right now but will probably improve in the next few years as a new telescope is being built in Chile called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. In addition to this NASA is also considering making a space telescope that would be dedicated to searching for asteroids like these.

If a very large object does come at us in the next few years we would know well in advance and could divert it from hitting the Earth. This is what the European Space Agency and NASA is developing a mission especially for. In the mean time we have to wish that luck is on our side and that we find out such useful information well beforehand so that these dangers can be prepared for. Do let us know what you feel about this in the comments below, do you think having such missions is worthwhile?

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