RUSSIA: On February 15, 2013, a massive asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere, causing a powerful explosion over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.
The blast shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured over a thousand people.
The event, known as the Chelyabinsk meteor strike, was a stark reminder of the potential dangers posed by space rocks and the urgent need to detect and track them.
Just like the Chelyabinsk meteor, which astronomers and space agencies could not detect, many asteroids are hidden from human view in the sun’s glare.
These space rocks, known as near-Earth objects (NEOs), are difficult to detect using traditional telescopes and require advanced technology and sophisticated algorithms to be identified and tracked.
According to NASA, there are over 25,000 NEOs in the solar system, many of which remain undiscovered.
The agency estimates that it has identified only about one-third of the total number of NEOs larger than 140 metres (460 feet), which are considered potentially hazardous to the Earth.
To address this challenge, NASA has launched several programmes to detect and track NEOs, such as the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which uses an infrared telescope to search for asteroids that are invisible to optical telescopes.
NEOWISE has already discovered over 1,000 previously unknown NEOs, including several potentially hazardous asteroids.
One of them, called 2016 WF9, caused some alarm among conspiracy theorists in 2017 when it was falsely rumoured to be a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth.
In reality, 2016 WF9 is a small, dark asteroid about 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) in diameter that orbits the sun on a highly elongated path that takes it from beyond Mars to the inner solar system.
The asteroid is not considered a threat to the Earth and passed safely by our planet on February 25, 2017, at a distance of about 51 million kilometres (32 million miles).
However, the incident highlights the importance of accurate information and public education about NEOs, which can help prevent unnecessary panic and promote preparedness in case of a real threat.
In addition to NASA’s efforts, other organisations and countries are also working on NEO detection and mitigation.
For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a mission called Hera, which aims to study and deflect a binary asteroid system called Didymos.
Didymos consists of two asteroids, one about 780 metres (2,560 feet) in diameter and the other about 160 metres (525 feet) in diameter, that orbit each other.
The Hera mission, scheduled for launch in 2024, will send a spacecraft to study and impact the smaller asteroid to alter its orbit and test the effectiveness of asteroid deflection techniques.
Overall, the Chelyabinsk meteor strike and the ongoing efforts to detect and mitigate NEOs serve as a wake-up call to the world about the potential dangers and opportunities of space exploration.
While there are many challenges and uncertainties ahead, there is also a tremendous potential for scientific discoveries, technological innovations, and global cooperation in the quest to understand and protect our planet and its inhabitants.
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