Astronomers miss second near-Earth asteroid in a month

12 Sep 2016

For the second time in a month, astronomers were late to discover an asteroid almost on a collision course with Earth as NASA launches OSIRIS-REx satellite to study a potential planet-killer.

Coming within just 40,000km of Earth, the asteroid dubbed 2016 RB1 measured about 8m across and flashed past us on 7 September marking the second time in a month that an object of a similar size went almost undetected near Earth.

This has resulted in a massive sigh of relief from NASA and other astronomers around the globe as, based on their projections, it will be the closest space rock to whizz by Earth for at least the next half a century.

However, given that asteroid2016 RB1 was only discovered two days prior to the fly-by, the likelihood of another object at least coming within a potentially dangerous proximity should not be ruled out.

Just two weeks  before this discovery, 2016 QA2 – measuring at least 16m wide – came within 80,000km of Earth and again was only detected a few days in advance of its fly-by.

While attempts to locate small objects proves difficult when searching an entire universe, efforts to chart potentially dangerous asteroids is an ongoing project for astronomers, including those at the Center for Near-Earth Objects (NEO) Studies.

Other organisations have also popped up in recent years. Most notably, the celebrity-backed Asteroid Day campaign to raise public awareness of NEOs and, hopefully, prevent any future catastrophe.

Part of its mission statement is the ‘100x Asteroid Declaration’ to use existing and new technology to help track and detect asteroids in close proximity to Earth, with NASA claiming it currently detects 1,500 each year.

Above: Spot RB1 streaking through Earth’s sky

Next stop, Bennu

One very recent effort to better understand asteroids is underway with the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission set for a cosmic meeting with one such NEO, Bennu, in 2023.

One of Osiris-REx’s mission directives is to determine whether it could potentially be brought into a collision course with Earth in 2035.

Due to a cosmic phenomenon known as the Yarkovsky effect, an asteroid could be nudged into a collision course with Earth as it absorbs sunlight and emits heat creating energy and propulsion.

By better analysing the effect on Bennu, we could give ourselves some time ahead of any potential collision that would cause considerable destruction on Earth.

Asteroid near Earth image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic