The very good reason NASA has invested in an asteroid alert system.
The very good reason NASA has invested in an asteroid alert system.
Image by Don Davis from NASA

NASA's New Asteroid Detector System Actually Detected an Asteroid

If the thought of asteroids whizzing toward Earth has ever had you freaked out, NASA has come up with a new computer system to help ease your flying-rock-unexpectedly-destroys-Earth fears, and it recently proved just how effective it is.

Usually when asteroids are zipping dangerously close to the planet, NASA only get a few hours to figure out if the flying object in question is going to hit us. But recently, NASA's new computer program, Scout, started tracking an asteroid — named 2016 UR36 — days before it got really close.

2016 UR36 was spotted via telescope and then analyzed using the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System in Hawaii last week. From there, the data was uploaded into Scout, which draws on telescope data from all over the world to keep a wary eye out for comets and asteroids that could be getting too close to Earth.

Once Scout had the data, it calculated within minutes that the asteroid would come close to the planet. Then the computer program alerted three other telescopes to do follow-up analysis to figure out the path the asteroid was likely to take. Within hours the program determined the asteroid was going to come within about 310,000 miles of Earth, which is pretty darn close considering the moon is about 240,000 miles away — but wouldn't actually hit us.

On Sunday the asteroid did exactly as Scout predicted, coming close but ultimately passing on by.

Asteroids being buzzing planet is far from a new thing. The number of discovered near-Earth asteroids now tops 15,000, with an average of 30 new discoveries added each week. However, being able to track them and rapidly know where they're heading was not possible back in 2008. That was when astronomers discovered an 80-ton flying rock just 19 hours before it rammed into Earth's atmosphere and exploded over a desert in a remote part of Sudan. There was no lead time to prepare before it hit, according to Space.com.

Then, in 2014 another asteroid crashed into Earth, burning up over West Africa around New Year's Day. Between those two events, NASA scientists were inspired to come up with programs that would identify, track and alert people about nearby asteroids approaching that might actually hit Earth. The larger ones are more likely to be spotted as they approach but the smaller ones, like the 2008 asteroid that burned up over Sudan and was only about 13 feet across, have been more likely to end up close to the planet before they're spotted, according to Space.com.

Now NASA scientists are testing the resulting program (Scout) to track the smaller ones. If the tests go well the hope is that Scout will dramatically increase the amount of asteroids we see and will speed up the process of both sighting them and figuring out whether they are a danger to the planet or not.

"Objects can come close to the Earth shortly after discovery, sometimes one day, two days, even hours in some cases," Davide Farnocchia, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told NPR. "The main goal of Scout is to speed up the confirmation process."

So now that's what they're working on. Scout should be done with testing and up and running officially by the end of this year. Once that happens, Scout will mainly be tracking the smaller asteroids — 2016 UR36, for instance, was one of the more pint-sized varieties of asteroid, measuring between 16 and 82 feet — that are already very close to Earth.

But don't think NASA is ignoring larger ones, the kinds of asteroids that are believed to have hit and destroyed most forms of life over the course of Earth's history. Sentry, the system that keeps tabs on the larger asteroids, is already working on identifying and asteroids of more than 450 feet in size, the ones that have the potential to strike and wipe out a big city.

Scout looks for asteroids about a month ahead while Sentry peers about a decade out to see what's coming. The two systems will share information once Scout is up and running as well. The goal for Sentry is to identify at least 90 percent of these very large asteroids way before they are close to the planet. Of course, so far, they've only identified about 25 percent of them, according to NPR, but they're working on it.

In addition to finding these potential high-velocity threats to human existence on this planet, NASA and other space agencies are actually working on figuring out how to divert asteroids from such paths of destruction, using plans that will hopefully have nothing to do with sending in Bruce Willis a la Armageddon. It'll take years to work out how the diverting would actually happen, but at least there are people thinking about this now.

In the meantime, let's all just keep our fingers crossed that Scout continues to keep an eye on the little asteroids and none of the giant flying rocks that Sentry is cataloging opt to zoom in for a truly close encounter.

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