Welcome to this installment of The Intelligence Brief… this week, we’ll be looking at 1) the recent revelation that Earth received a surprise visit from a near-Earth object only days ago, 2) how past asteroid events have put NASA on alert over potentially deadly impact events, and 3) how the U.S. space agency says its DART program will strengthen planetary defense against asteroids in the future.
As always, a complete listing of our recent stories will be featured at the end of this installment of the newsletter… and with that, we now turn our attention toward NASA’s goals for planetary defense against asteroids, and a low-risk incident in recent days that still has space experts concerned about future surprises.
A Surprise Visit From an Asteroid
In late October, somewhere high over Antarctica a phonebooth-sized asteroid careened through space within just 1,800 miles of Earth’s south pole.
What made the discovery of this asteroid surprising—and concerning—is that astronomers only spotted it after it made its near-Earth flyby.
The object, called Asteroid UA1, was able to evade detection by passing through a “blind spot” whereby it approached from the same direction as the Sun, which shielded it from becoming visible to astronomers and asteroid detection systems. Granted, NASA doesn’t consider a space object to be a potential threat unless it is estimated to be larger than 460 feet in diameter; being smaller than an automobile, most of UA1 would likely have burned up on its way into Earth’s atmosphere.
Regardless, the fact that an object as large as UA1 was able to drift past our planet unnoticed, and within a shorter distance than the orbits of some satellites, has some space experts worried.
Not the First Time
The events of late October involving UA1 were not the first time a space object managed to sneak through our planetary back door, and with potentially grave consequences.
On February 15, 2023, Earth received a wakeup call in the form of a house-sized asteroid that came unexpectedly barreling through the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia. Traveling an estimated eleven miles per second, the object sped through the morning skies before the burning space rock detonated a mere 14 miles above the Earth.
The resulting explosion produced a blast estimated to be on par with close to 440,000 tons of TNT, which caused widespread damage. Homes were rattled and buildings were damaged over an area as wide as 200 square miles, with windows blown from their frames during the ensuing shockwave. More than 1,600 injuries resulted from the blast.
Ironically, on the very day the Chelyabinsk asteroid sped through the morning skies over Russia, the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Working Group on Near-Earth Objects was convening in Vienna to discuss how to defend the planet against future asteroid strikes.
Calling the incident “a cosmic wake-up call,” NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson later said the Chelyabinsk event “drew widespread attention to what more needs to be done to detect even larger asteroids before they strike our planet.”
NASA’s DART Program Lays Plans for the Future
The news of UA1’s visit arrives as NASA announced its most recent plans to discuss planetary defense against impacts from dangerous near-Earth objects. The space agency stated that it planned to provide a media briefing on its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) during a virtual meeting scheduled for 1 PM EDT on Thursday, November 4.
Led by NASA in coordination with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and a collection of other NASA facilities, DART will be the first demonstration of what it terms “kinetic impactor” technology, designed to intercept with and alter the motion of an asteroid headed toward Earth.
“As a technology test, the mission will help determine if intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid is an effective way to change its course, should an Earth-threatening asteroid be discovered in the future,” a NASA press statement read. “DART’s target asteroid is not a threat to Earth,” it added.
Even if DART’s capabilities prove to be effective in altering the course of asteroids that are found to be on a collision course with our planet in the future, the requirement of first being able to spot those asteroids remains. Going forward, a combined approach that pairs enhanced detection capabilities with the use of kinetic impactors will likely be required in order to ensure the overall safety of our planet.
In several bizarre incidents spanning nearly a year, commercial airline pilots have reported seeing what appears to be a person wearing a jetpack flying dangerously close to Los Angeles International Airport.