NASA chief calls for global effort to study asteroid threat

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has called for more global participation in efforts to deflect asteroids that could collide with Earth.

Bridenstine spoke to the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday morning in an event that was streamed live online. The conference was organized by the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety.

“We have to use our systems our capabilities to ultimately get more data and we have to do it faster,” Bridenstine said. “We need more partners from all over the world.”

The conference featured world experts on what is known about potentially hazardous asteroids and comets and how rockets or spacecraft might alter a collision course with Earth.

Bridenstine said asteroid redirection is “not about movies” and not about Hollywood, but it is about “protecting the only planet we know.”

“One of the reasons we have to take this seriously is the giggle factor,” he said.

NASA already has an asteroid deflection test mission — Double Asteroid Redirection Test — scheduled for launch from California in 2021 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The DART spacecraft is designed to collide with a small moon of the asteroid Didymos in 2022, with a mission cost of $69 million.

Members of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety are tracking an asteroid, 99942 Apophis, which will pass by Earth on April 13, 2029, closer than where weather satellites orbit.

According to the association, It will be bright enough to be visible with an unaided eye for several hours around the closest approach. Named after the ancient Egyptian spirit of evil, darkness and destruction, it is estimated to be about 1,115 feet in diameter.

“If it were to hit, it would cause major damage to our planet and likely to our civilization as well.

Fortunately, Apophis will not hit Earth in 2029, but the closeness of its approach will provide an

excellent opportunity to study and perhaps send a spacecraft to this potentially hazardous Asteroid,” said a news release from the international association.

Bridenstine said he was glad the association was publicizing the Apophis event, so that the public and leaders in Congress appreciate the opportunity it represents to study a near-earth object or NEO.

He said the European Space Agency is a leader in the effort, and Russia is very aware of the issue because of large meteor events there in 1908 and in 2013.

The latter event, the Chelyabinsk meteor, exploded in the sky over Russia, sending out heat and shock waves that blew out windows, injured hundreds of people and set off alarms over a large area. That meteor was 66 feet across.

Larger asteroids or meteors could destroy an entire state or entire European country, Bridenstine said.

NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage the SpaceX launch service for DART. The DART Project office is located at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office in Washington.

Gaia survey reveals three new asteroids

The ongoing Gaia survey has turned up a trio of new asteroids in the solar system.

The Gaia mission is an effort by astronomers to compile the largest and most precise 3D space catalog in history. Most of the space telescope’s targets are faraway stars, but the observatory can also pick up objects closer to Earth, including asteroids.

The majority of the asteroids spotted by Gaia are already known, but astronomers found three new asteroids among the observations released by Gaia late last year. The three new asteroids were confirmed by observations made using the Haute-Provence Observatory in France.

The three space rocks are all main-belt asteroids, but the tilt of their orbits are slightly askew, setting them apart from their neighbors.

“The population of such high-inclination asteroids is not as well studied as those with less tilted orbits, since most surveys tend to focus on the plane where the majority of asteroids reside,” the European Space Agency reported. “But Gaia can readily observe them as it scans the entire sky from its vantage point in space, so it is possible that the satellite will find more such objects in the future and contribute new information to study their properties.”

An online alert system that scans Gaia data for potential discoveries and idiosyncrasies keeps astronomers all over the world abreast of noteworthy findings. After being sent an alert, scientists can deploy other observatories for followup imaging.

“Once an asteroid detected by Gaia has been identified also in ground-based observations, the scientists in charge of the alert system analyze the data to determine the object’s orbit,” according to ESA. “In case the ground observations match the orbit based on Gaia’s data, they provide the information to the Minor Planet Center, which is the official worldwide organization collecting observational data for small solar system bodies like asteroids and comets.”

Though all of the asteroids identified so far by Gaia have been inhabitants of the main asteroid belt, it’s possible the space observatory could spot near Earth objects. Space agencies around the world are working hard to more effectively identify and track the trajectories of potentially hazardous space rocks.

This week, federal agencies in the United States, as well as several international partners, are participating in an asteroid impact exercise at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference. As part of the tabletop exercise, participants responded to a fictional near-Earth object impact scenario.

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