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The hunt for dangerous asteroids: Here's how scientists do it

By Doris Elin Salazar
May 06, 2019, 10:57:42 AM EDT


The black fragment of Almahata Sitta meteorite number 15 shows up black against the lighter colored rocks of the Nubian desert in northern Sudan. (Image: © Peter Jenniskens (SETI Institute/NASA Ames))

In a series of presentations on April 29, the first day of the 6th International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference, scientists from different Near-Earth Object (NEO) monitoring systems discussed their successes and what the future might bring.

First up, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Davide Farnocchia talked about a system that holds information about potential space-rock candidates. During his presentation, Farnocchia said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Scout Hazard Assessment systemhad worked well when the boulder-size, near-Earth asteroid called 2018 LAentered Earth's atmosphere as a bright fireball over the Botswana-South Africa border in June 2018.


3122 Florence is a triple-asteroid system. The radar capabilities of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico were able to detect the small satellites around the larger object. (Image: © IAA/Patrick Taylor/Arecibo Observatory/NSF)

Space rocks are designated with the year they are first spotted. This asteroid was spotted not only the same year it descended toward Earth, but also just 8.5 hours before it hit Earth's atmosphere.

Scout's goal is to continually monitor the objects listed on the Minor Planet Center'sNear-Earth Object Confirmation Page (NEOCRP). This webpage lists unconfirmed objects, keeps tabs on details like an object's trajectory (called the ephemeris) and gathers information related to the object's hazard potential. Instead of providing a rigorous probability assessment, Farnocchia said, Scout's automated system produces impact ratings and scores to identify interesting objects to stay ahead of an object's sometimes short observation arc, or the time between an object's first observation and its most recent one.

An object gets removed from the system when the Minor Planet Center gives it an alphanumeric classificationafter more observations pour in. Eventually, if time passes and an object remains unclassified, it, too, is removed from NEOCRP and Scout.

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