• Sun. Feb 5th, 2023



Should We Be Looking Harder For Asteroids? Mystery Space Rock Could Have Caused ‘Global Devastation’

Not a month goes by without an asteroid of note being detected, but this week something rather alarming happened. An asteroid measuring a kilometer wide was spotted last week by amateur astronomer in Brazil.

This was not a near-miss. It wasn’t on course to hit Earth and nor will it in this century, but the fact that this relatively large near-Earth object (NEO) went undetected until now is a bit of a concern. 

After all, a kilometer-wide asteroid like 2020 QU6 could create global devastation if it were to hit the Earth. 

Thankfully that’s not going to happen.

How far away was 2020 QU6?

2020 QU6 missed our planet by 25 million miles/40 million kilometer on September 10, 2020. That’s about 100 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. 

It’s thought that around 90% of objects at least a kilometer wide have already been found, and none found so far will hit Earth in the next few centuries. However, last week’s discovery highlights that 90% isn’t good enough.

How much do we spend on defending our planet?

NASA spends about $160 million per year on —planetary defence projects; that’s under 1% of its total spending and equivalent to 48 cents for each American, according to The Planetary Society. 

Who found 2020 QU6?

2020 QU6 was found by Leonardo Amaral at the Campo dos Amarais observatory in Brazil. Last year he received a grant of $8,500 from The Planetary Society for a more stable telescope mount for better tracking and longer camera exposures. 

The importance of amateur astronomers

It underlines the importance of observations by amateur astronomers, both in the protection of our planet and for cataloguing asteroids and comets. The Planetary Society’s Shoemaker NEO Grant program funds advanced amateur astronomers around the world who find, track, and characterize potentially dangerous space rocks. 

Often it’s down to amateur astronomers to follow-up on asteroids discovered by large-scale sky surveys to determine their size and orbits.

Why we need more asteroid-hunting sky surveys south of the equator

The discovery of 2020 QU6 also underlines the hemisphere-bias in our planet’s sky surveys. While many of our biggest astronomical telescopes takes close-up of celestial objects from the southern hemisphere’ clearer, darker skies —such as from Chile, South Africa and Australia—all of the world’s major professional asteroid-hunting sky surveys are located in Earth’s northern hemisphere.

Amaral was able to find 2020 QU6 precisely became he was located in the southern hemisphere. However, the most pressing pressing need is the detection of smaller asteroids that can cause regional-scale devastation.

Why are we hearing more about asteroids?

Asteroids are in the news more than ever, and there’s a simple reason for that. “In the news, we hear more and more frequently about asteroid discoveries primarily because we are getting better at finding and tracking near-Earth asteroids,” said Bruce Betts, Chief Scientists at The Planetary Society. “There aren’t suddenly more asteroids, we’re just getting better at seeing them.”

“This discovery reminds us that even though we’ve found most large NEOs, we haven’t found all of them,” said Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society. “

What’s NASA’s plan to defend us?

NASA’s NEO Surveillance Mission (NEOSM) space telescope could launch in 2025 if funding is secured, but that looks unlikely. “We must continue to support ground-based astronomers and invest in new space-based capabilities like NEOSM in order to protect Earth now and in the future,” said Dreier. 

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes. 

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