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NASA has recently developed a new asteroid monitoring system that has just been triggered by a large asteroid hurtling towards planet earth.
The asteroid which was spotted last week, will pass by earth with a comfortable margin of about 310,000 miles, roughly around 1.3 times further away than we are from the moon. So it is a comfortable distance, but thanks to the new warning system, we now have days worth of notice rather than hours, potentially saving lives. In total, researchers were given 5 days notice to prepare for the asteroid flyby.
Asteroid 2016 UR36 discovered. Flyby Oct 31 at 03:13 UT. Dist: 1.30 LD. Size: 5-19 m. https://t.co/mDrJsvYVIV— Minor Planet Center (@MinorPlanetCtr) October 30, 2016
The asteroid, which is between 5m and 25m across, has been given the name 2016 UR36 and was first detected by a telescope in Hawaii on October 25. Once the asteroid had been spotted, the data was quickly uploaded to NASA's warning system (called Scout). Scout then processed the data and came up with a number of trajectories, some of which intersected with Earth.
Other telescopes were also notified, so that they too could observe the asteroid and help narrow down its trajectory. Within hours, they had determined its true path, which fortunately doesn't have an impact with Earth.
Paul Chodas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, "When a telescope first finds a moving object, all you know is it’s just a dot, moving on the sky."
"You have no information about how far away it is. The more telescopes you get pointed at an object, the more data you get, and the more you’re sure you are how big it is and which way it’s headed. But sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to make those observations."
The job of Scout is mainly to size up the potential impact of those asteroids and to deliver a verdict as to whether they are a real threat to mankind as quickly as possible. Even though some will inevitably slip through the net, it is doing well so far and is detecting around five per night and has a further 15,000 on file which could have a potential impact on Earth.
Scout is designed to detect small objects, but there is another NASA program, called Sentry, which is designed to detect asteroids which are large enough (~140m in length) to take out entire cities! One asteroid in particular, was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs and that was 10km in length.
Sentry also has a list of asteroids, which are deemed capable of sustaining substantial damage on Earth. There are 655 on this list at the moment though this number is thought to be very conservative.
To be in with a chance of stopping these colossal asteroids, we need to first get better at detecting them and then we need to get better at working out their flight path.
"If you know well in advance, and by well in advance I mean 10 years, 20 years, 30 years in advance which is something we can do, " Ed Lu, CEO of asteroid threat organisation B612, told NPR.
"Then you can divert such an asteroid by just giving it a tiny nudge when it's many billions of miles from hitting the Earth."
Let's just hope that in the meantime we get lucky and that the asteroids will be 'near misses' like 2016 UR36, which is scheduled to zoom past Earth at 03:13am UTC on 31 October 2016 (2:13pm Sydney time, or 11:13pm on 30 October 2016 in New York).