How do these massive asteroids keep sneaking up on us?

We’re heading a bit off the beaten path here, but a couple of interesting science items in the news are raising questions. The first bit of news is that on July 24th, an asteroid (named 2019OK) that’s bigger than a football field passed by the Earth at a distance of 40,400 miles. That’s less than one fifth the distance from the Earth to the moon. In astronomical terms, that’s an extremely near miss. If it had hit us it wouldn’t have been an extinction-level event like the dinosaurs faced, but it would have done one hell of a lot of damage no matter where it came down.

The second part of that story is possibly more alarming. Despite NASA having spent years tracking all of the dangerous asteroids in near-Earth orbit, nobody saw this one coming until 24 hours before it arrived. Even if we had some grandiose (and as yet fictional) plan in place to divert killer asteroids, there’s no way we could have even gotten our shoes laced up before that one would have been setting the world on fire. This led Buzzfeed to ask how these giant rocks keep sneaking up on us. An FOIA request to NASA produced some of the background conversations taking place at the agency.

“This object slipped through a whole series of our capture nets,” Paul Chodas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in an email to his colleagues two days after the July 25 flyby, describing what he called the “sneaky” space rock. “I wonder how many times this situation has happened without the asteroid being discovered at all.”

The emails were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and provide a detailed, behind-the-scenes look as NASA officials scrambled to figure out why the asteroid wasn’t spotted until it was nearly whizzing past Earth. Other emails show internal agency scientists frustrated by a media response that called the event a “city killer” that “just missed the earth.”

“This one did sneak up on us and it is an interesting story on the limitations of our current survey network,” Johnson wrote in a July 26 email.

While it’s easy to point fingers, we probably shouldn’t be so quick to pin the blame on NASA. One of my favorite radio hosts, Micah Hanks, believes that dumping the blame on NASA for this miss is shortsighted. In fact, it’s amazing that we’re finding and tracking so many of these rocks as it is.

Part of what makes these “near misses” so disturbing is that we’re seeing them at all. As our asteroid detection capabilities continue to improve, what we’re actually seeing is a better success rate at spotting these objects, whereas in the past they might not have been seen at all.

The really sobering idea is to think of how many more times in the past there were larger–or closer–objects that sped past Earth without us having so much as an idea…

It’s easy to see why people would be worked up about news of a “near-miss” like what happened with 2019 OK. However, rather than a failure on part of NASA and other space agencies around the world, if anything, it’s a clear indication that our planetary defense science is steadily improving.

I find myself landing somewhere between these two schools of thought. Like Micah, I believe that NASA is doing the best they can with what they have. And as time goes by, we’re probably going to get even better at detection and potentially interception. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some room for improvement. Or “blame,” if you wish.

Back in 2005, Congress passed a law ordering NASA to begin tracking the majority of dangerous asteroids passing close to us. And they’ve made remarkable progress since then. But as Buzzfeed correctly points out, in order to really fulfill that mission, NASA has requested (and needs) larger and more advanced telescopes and spacecraft to get the job done. Congress has failed to follow through with the funding for those resources.

So if there’s any blame to be thrown around here, we should probably aim it Congress. They’ve turned the search for near-Earth asteroids into at least a partially unfunded mandate. They can probably do a much better job but they’ll need more than two dixie cups attached by a string. At the same time, we might all need to adjust our expectations and stay grounded in reality. While it may be distressing, I’ll circle back to a sobering quote from Micah in the article linked above. “In the eventual sense, a space object large enough to be able to cause widespread damage will strike the Earth–it’s not a matter of if, but simply one of when.”