Asteroids: Near Earth Objects (NEO) Explained

The issue of asteroids has been in the news recently, predictably because of the Chinese space probe, Chang’e-2, successful completion of its secondary mission, a flyby of the asteroid 4179 Toutatis, with an impressive display of digital imagery taken of the asteroid in motion.

An undetected asteroid flew through our solar system on September 13 of this year, and was only previously discovered about a month earlier. Had that asteroid been on a collision course with our planet, our government would have been hard-pressed to do anything about it. There was never any doubt that this asteroid, QG 42, had no chance of hitting the Earth, but it definitely stirred the pot, as it were.

So let’s take a look at Near Earth Objects (NEO), and try to see what NASA as well as other organizations are doing to enhance discovery of these potentially life-threatening space objects.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), part of the Institute for astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is an astronomical observatory located on Haleakala, Maui. The observatory came online in December 2008, and began full-time science observations on May 13, 2010. Its operations are currently funded by the PS1 Science Consortium, a group of 10 institutions hailing from the United States, Germany, United Kingdom and Taiwan.

This facility is equipped with numerous astronomical cameras and telescopes and is surveying the sky on a continual basis, detecting any differences between current day images, and the previous days images in an attempt to discover asteroids, comets,as well as other celestial objects.

It is estimated that over the next decade, that the observatory will discover a minimum of 100,000 asteroids, and will catalog 5 billion stars and 500 million galaxies along the way.

It will also be used to compile the most comprehensive digital map ever assembled, of up to 75% of the universe that is visible from Hawaii.

NASA has also developed a Near Earth Object Program, in association with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory division of NASA.

NASA describes near Earth objects as comets and asteroids that have been pushed by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets, into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth’s area of our solar system. These asteroids and comets are composed mainly of water and ice with embedded dust particles. Comets are generally formed in the colder, outer planetary system of space, why asteroids orbit in the asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Scientific interest in asteroids and comets is due in large part to their being debris left behind from the Big Bang that created our Solar System some 4.6 Billion years ago.

As we discover more and more objects in the sky that were previously unimagined, and not detected, all this information has to be processed correctly, and plans then have to be developed at that point to keep these Near Earth Objects from impacting the earth.

According to NASA, the exact process by which life is formed on Earth is not very well understood, and NASA scientists are looking to asteroids as a conglomerate of carbon-based molecules, liquid water and ice, these objects contain the essence of life, and have significant agents of biological as well as geological evolution.

Towards that end, a company you may or may not have heard of, Planetary Resources Incorporated, has announced plans of their intention to mine resources from Near Earth Asteroids, then bring that asteroid into Earth or the moon’s orbit, an attempt to mind the precious metals, and extract the hydrogen from the water on the asteroid for resale purposes.

Sounds very ambitious, but if the technology for doing this type of thing is available, why not try. This is how discoveries are born, and it may help to keep asteroids and other Near Earth Objects from ending like on our planet as we know it.

Article by Jim Donahue

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