The human race is still years away from landing the first people on Mars, and remains decades, if not centuries, from becoming a true interplanetary species with permanent, habitable colonies beyond Earth. In other words, the human race is stuck on a planet vulnerable to the extraterrestrial threats that have reinvented life before, as recent as 66 millions years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid collision off what is now present-day Mexico.
Fast-forward to the present day, where 66 million years is a snapshot in geologic time. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has approved development of a new telescope to detect such threats and thwart the repeated fate of the dinosaurs.
On Friday, NASA gave the green light for the Near-Earth Object Surveyor space telescope, or NEO surveyor, to scan the cosmos for asteroids and comets with the potential to hit Earth by coming within 30 million miles of our planet. The new telescope will use infrared light to pick up dangerous objects flying through the solar system that are unable to be seen by telescopes on Earth with the same goals.
“NEO Surveyor will have the capability to rapidly accelerate the rate at which NASA is able to discover asteroids and comets that could pose a hazard to the Earth, and it is being designed to discover 90 percent of asteroids 140 meters (459 feet) in size or larger within a decade of being launched,” said NASA’s NEO Surveyor program scientist in a statement.
An asteroid-hunting telescope? NEO Surveyor, or Near-Earth Object Surveyor space telescope, is moving into its next development phase. This instrument will help us discover & study many possibly hazardous objects within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit. https://t.co/xbH1p0sPQc pic.twitter.com/7XsvqG8gcZ
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) June 11, 2021
While NASA finished its goal of finding 90 percent of objects larger than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in 2010, the agency was ordered in 2005 to find 90 percent of objects larger than 140 meters (459 feet), which NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies still considers “potentially hazardous” and to carry Armageddon. NASA has only found 40 percent of these objects.
Before the launch of NASA’s latest infrared telescope, however, which will follow an orbit beyond the moon scheduled for sometime within the first six months of 2026, cosmic threats coming from the direction of the sun have gone undetected, as optical telescopes on the ground have only been able to operate at night.
One such lapse in detection wrought havoc on Russia in 2013, when the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over the southern Ural region at 40,000 miles per hour with the force of 30 to 40 times more energy than the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima. The blast damaged more than 7,000 buildings in the area and injured a Guardian-estimated 1,100 people, primarily from the shattered glass. It sent communities scrambling to clean up in the middle of the harsh Russian winter. Some scientists say the fireball outshone the sun. The asteroid was less than 20 meters in diameter, according to Canadian Physics Professor Peter Brown.
The impact blast 0f another asteroid collision 100 years prior was far greater. The Tunguska meteor hit Siberia and reportedly flattened 800 square miles of remote forest.
The relatively recent impacts illustrate the importance of NASA’s latest space telescope, managed by the agency’s Planetary Missions Program at Marshall Space Flight Center, and the project’s urgency to stave off an unpredicted Armageddon.
Equally important to detection is collision prevention. NASA is currently developing technology to deflect an object from hitting the planet and will test one mode of deflection later this year with DART, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test. The mission will target the binary near-Earth asteroid system Didymos, the Greek word for “twin,” detected in 1996, and will feature a spacecraft crashing into the object’s smaller moon to change its orbit further from Earth next year.
In May, the Independent reported simulations from the world’s leading space agencies found that no such technology yet exists to conclusively prevent a world-ending collision, even with six months’ notice, highlighting the urgency of innovation and detection needed to save the human race on its one and only home.