Jason Kessler, NASA’s director of the asteroid-hunting ‘Grand Challenge‘ programme, said the US space agency has a good handle on 1km-long or bigger space rocks that could wipe out mankind if they hit our planet.
However, he admitted NASA have barely scratched the surface in identifying smaller asteroids of around 30 metres in length, which still have the potential to devastate a city from a direct strike.
He said: “[NASA] is tracking 12,706 Near Earth Objects, or asteroids that could come close to Earth.
“Of those 1,593 are potentially hazardous, meaning they might cross Earth’s path.
“Another 800 of the total tracked asteroids are 1km or more in length. Some of those – 152 – also have the potential to cross the Earth’s path, which would be devastating.”
He added: “We have discovered about 95 per cent of the 1km or larger asteroids, that’s roughly the size of the one that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs upon impact.
“Unfortunately we only know about roughly one per cent of those asteroids that get down to the 30metre size, so there’s a tremendous amount out there that we have yet to discover.”
Mr Kessler said there are “potentially hundreds of thousands” of smaller asteroids “headed this way” that have not yet been identified.
He is almost reassured there is currently no direct threat to Earth, but worryling added: “Aside from the 98% of asteroids that have yet to be discovered.”
It came just days before the first ever World Asteroid Day is held on June 30 by campaigners including Queen guitarist Brian May and TV sicnetist Professor Brian Cox, who believe NASA must do more to develop technology to predict and stop hazardous asteroids.
The conference also marked the second anniversary of the ‘Grand Challenge’ programme, which has asked the public to help NASA “track all asteroid threats to human populations, and think about “what to do about them.”
Ben Reed is leading a team developing NASA’s Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission, to create the first ever asteroid lander – an unmanned space craft that could reach a space rock.
Mr Reed hopes such equipment will one day be able to shift an asteroid’s course to avoid a hit on Earth.
He described it possibly using thrusters to nudge one off course, or could use its gravitational pull to change its orbit.
Once safely diverted, the lander could bring back a piece of the asteroid to Earth for research, he added.
In a huge part of the centre called ‘the Cauldron’ scientists are doing tests with robotic arms on a jeep-sized fake asteroid and two satellites.
They also need to look at how to fuel the lander as it would need to be sent millions of miles into space to divert threats before they got too near and then return home with a piece of it.
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