New NASA Map Tracks Asteroids Entering Earth’s Atmosphere

NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Program released a map this week detailing the location of hundreds of small asteroids that have entered the Earth’s atmosphere in the last couple decades.

Asteroids that appear as fireballs as they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere are known as bolides and NASA has pinpointed the location of 556 of them including the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russian skies in 2013.

“Almost all asteroids of this size disintegrate in the atmosphere and are usually harmless.”

[Image by Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock]

The asteroid map, which covers information recorded on government sensors from 1994 to 2013, is designed to help scientists discover what would really happen to Earth if a giant asteroid, or even a medium one, came calling on our planet.

Any space rock over a mile across that struck the planet would have devastating global affects and could potentially end life on Earth as we know it, but NASA thinks it has spotted 95 percent of those large asteroids near our planet and doesn’t think the world is in danger any time soon.

The American-led international effort to track near-Earth objects hit a milestone earlier this year and confirmed the location of 15,000 NEOs.

A smaller asteroid, however, say about half a mile wide, could wipe out an entire region or part of a continent and the space agency isn’t so sure it’s found all of those yet.

Even a relatively small space rock, 130 feet wide or so, could wipe out a city and cause massive devastation to the surrounding area. It happened in 1908 during what is known as the Tunguska event when a meteor exploded over the Stony Tunguska River and flattened more than 700 square miles of forest.

That’s why NASA has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to finding nearby space rocks and has even encouraged the public to help in their planetary protection efforts.

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The Asteroid Grand Challenge is a NASA-coordinated effort involving the international community, commercial partners, and citizen scientists committed to finding dangerous space rocks before they can threaten Earth.

Our planet currently has no plan to alter the course of incoming space rocks, but NASA is busy developing strategies to save our world from an asteroid collision. That’s one reason for the space agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will launch in 2020 to move an as-yet-unnamed space rock into orbit around the moon.

The technology used in the mission will demonstrate NASA’s ability to change the course of an incoming asteroid using a gravity tractor technique in which a spacecraft creates a gravitational field sufficient to tug the asteroid, as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Spaceflight Insider.

“This is a hazard that, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs succumbed to. We have to be smarter than the dinosaurs.”

NASA and FEMA conducted a planetary protection drill in October to simulate the impact of a 330-foot-long asteroid in Los Angeles. The exercise studied the government response to the disaster that would probably level every building within 30 miles.

The idea of an asteroid colliding with the Earth in an Armageddon-like event has struck the public’s imagination recently, prompting NASA to release daily records of space rocks that pass near Earth.

The Daily Minor Planet is a news service devoted solely to publicizing information about the asteroids that pass near our planet every day. The week of Thanksgiving, Nov. 21-27, there will be 13 asteroids flying by near Earth.

Notable scientists, including Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist and guitarist for the rock band Queen, designated June 30 as International Asteroid Day last year as a way to spread information on a possible collision, according to Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart.

“Early warning is the essential ingredient of planetary defense. Time is the issue. At the current rate of discovery of 20 meter NEOs and larger at about 1000/year, it will take more than 1,000 years to find one million NEOs that potentially threaten Earth. That’s a long time and even then we’d have reached only 10 percent or so of the Chelyabinsk-size objects that potentially threaten impact.”

What do you think of NASA’s new map detailing asteroids that have entered the atmosphere?

[Featured Image by Planetary Science/NASA]