NASA officials are planning to monitor all asteroids that pass near Earth, they announced Tuesday, an ambitious effort that will need international collaboration between government organizations, private companies, universities and citizens.
The space agency currently spots 95 percent of near-Earth asteroids larger than 3,280 feet across. They detect less than 1 percent of asteroids smaller than 328 feet. The new plan calls for tracking any rock large enough to damage human civilization, including those less than 33 feet wide. That would catch objects like the 56-foot meteor that exploded over Russia in February. The agency would also collect thorough information on asteroids’ size, composition, spin and surface properties. NASA would deflect any Earth-bound asteroids larger than 328 feet.
How NASA will do this isn’t yet known. As of Tuesday, officials are soliciting information on how to best track, deflect and capture asteroids. Past research suggests a nuclear explosion or being hit by a spacecraft could shift an asteroid’s course. A spacecraft could also capture one with a bag.
Back in March, NASA and the House of Representatives Science Committee had a tense conversation about current asteroid efforts, when NASA Chief Chris Bolden chastised the government for not providing enough funding after Congress accused NASA of not being prepared for an incident like the Russian meteor. The 2005 NASA Authorization Act requires the agency to track 90 percent of near-Earth objects larger than 460 feet wide by 2020 — a goal it has yet to meet.
NASA currently tracks asteroids with telescopes equipped with cameras. The telescopes scan the sky continuously and automatically upload sightings of objects headed toward Earth to an online database. Current technology limits researchers’ ability to spot smaller asteroids, which quite regularly escape notice altogether.
Officials have dubbed the expanded tracking project a “grand challenge” — a title awarded in the past to major scientific goals like identifying the most crucial parts of the human genome. It complements a second NASA asteroid initiative to pull an asteroid into the moon’s orbit for scientific observation.
The House began drafting a NASA bill last week that would cut capturing an asteroid altogether, according to a summary released by SpaceNews. A subcommittee will meet tomorrow to consider it.