The trail left by the meteor in the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia, on
Friday. Will that event spur increased funding for NEO search efforts?
(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Skyfall: will a Russian meteor and an asteroid flyby change our minds about the NEO threat?

by Jeff Foust
Monday, February 18, 2013

For decades, a small community of astronomers and other space advocates has warned of the threats posed by near Earth objects (NEOs). While this group has made some progress in raising awareness of the threat and doing something about it, such a small amount of NASA funding to support searches for NEOs, they’ve faced the challenge that these impact risks still seem somewhat theoretical. Of course, NEO impacts aren’t theoretical, as evidence amply demonstrates: the Chicxulub impact approximately 65 million years ago that is now widely believed to have led to the demise of the dinosaurs, Meteor Crater in Arizona, and the Tunguska explosion in 1908, among many examples.

However, modern society doesn’t have direct experience with the destructive potential of NEO impacts, as even the relatively recent Tunguska event took place in a remote area and was pieced together only decades later. The threat of “doomsday from the skies” has become a staple of science fiction, often bad (Armageddon, anyone?) but rarely a key concern for the general public, given that lack of experience. Why worry about something that sounds like sci-fi when there are so many other terrestrial concerns to keep you up at night?

The events of February 15th may have changed that risk calculus, though. In the weeks leading up to Friday, astronomers were hoping to raise awareness of the NEO population with the close flyby that day of asteroid 2012 DA14. That object, about 45 meters in diameter, passed 27,700 kilometers from the Earth’s surface: closer than satellites in geosynchronous orbit, although on a trajectory that did not intersect the orbit itself. The flyby offered an opportunity to remind people that, while 2012 DA14 itself posed no impact risk to the Earth or its satellites, it was a reason to keep scanning the skies looking for objects that might be more dangerous.

Read more: The Space Review: Skyfall: will a Russian meteor and an asteroid flyby change our minds about the NEO threat?.

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