NASA Finds No Giant Asteroids Will Strike This Millennium

Category Space

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A new study by University of Colorado and NASA scientists found that none of the known near-Earth asteroids pose a threat to Earth's future in the next thousand years. The team was able to make the forecasts by relying on close flybys of Earth that can be modeled further into the future. Despite the low chance of asteroid impact, NASA is still working to find potentially hazardous NEOs and asteroids in the still-undiscovered five percents.

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To those who study existential risk, the list of threats is lengthening. If nuclear war doesn’t end us, a designer virus or AI might. The good news? No giant asteroids will strike this millennium.

A new study by University of Colorado and NASA scientists and accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal, extended forecasts for the biggest known near-Earth asteroids by an order of magnitude and found none threaten Earth in the next thousand years.

The large asteroids most likely to pose a threat to Earth are known as the Near Earth Objects (NEOs)

Don’t Look Up .

In 1998, NASA asked scientists to find 90 percent of all near-Earth asteroids bigger than a kilometer. The 10-kilometer-wide asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago belonged to this club. But even smaller strikes would be catastrophic.

Scientists believe such impacts happen every few million years, but until recent decades, there was simply no way to predict future strikes. No one had a list of likely candidates. NASA has since discovered nearly a thousand asteroids over a kilometer wide, or around 95 percent of the total in existence.

NEOs are asteroids that approach the Earth's orbit at some point in its orbit around the Sun and can be anywhere between 1 meter and over 40 kilometers in diameter

This catalog includes observations that help astronomers calculate each asteroid’s orbit and model the likelihood it’ll impact Earth in the future. But these predictions previously maxed out around a hundred years. As asteroids careen around the sun, their orbits are tugged about by the gravity of the planets. Gravitational encounters, especially close ones, increase the uncertainty in forecasting models. Past a certain point, astronomers can’t say exactly where an asteroid will be in its orbit.

The amount of energy released due to an asteroid strike is around 20 times greater than an equivalent detonation of any known thermonuclear weapon

Buzzing the Tower .

The new study aims to make longer forecasts by employing some tricks to reduce the computational workload. Instead of relying on orbital position alone, they zoomed in on the most consequential moments—close flybys of Earth. These encounters, they write, can be modeled further into the future, even as orbital position becomes uncertain.

Looking ahead a thousand years, the team found the vast majority of asteroids didn’t spend much time in our neighborhood and could be ruled out as hazardous. Next, they identified the population of large asteroids that most frequently buzz by Earth. Using their new method, they modeled close encounters over the next millennium.

The NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) constantly scans the skies for potentially hazardous NEOs and asteroids

The asteroid with the highest probability of impact is 1994 PC1, a kilometer-wide asteroid that passes close to Earth often. The team found a 0.00151 percent chance that 1994 PC1 would pass within the moon’s orbit in the next thousand years. This is a very small risk—and yet it’s still ten times higher than any other asteroid on the list.

Using this method at least, it seems we’re very unlikely to experience a major impact any time soon.

NASA's Near-Earth Object Human Space Flight Accessible Targets Study (NHATS) is a project tasked with finding destinations close to Earth that astronauts could feasibly and safely visit

“It’s still not likely that it’s going to collide,” the University of Colorado’s Oscar Fuentes-Muñoz, who led the team, told MIT Technology Review. “But it will be a very good scientific opportunity, because it’s going to be a huge asteroid that’s very close to us.” .

Planetary Defense .

Of course, there’s a chance a more dangerous asteroid is lurking in the still-undiscovered five percents. NASA’s planetary defense team is working to find them soon. Meanwhile, beyond providing short-term comfort, the thousand-year forecast can help plan for eventual deflection or destruction missions, if needed.

In 2022, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Hera mission to visit a binary asteroid system for the purpose of asteroid relativity and deflection studies

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