NASA’s Scout System Just Predicted an Asteroid Impact. Here’s What That Means for Planetary Defense.

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… recently, NASA’s Scout impact assessment system succeeded in calculating the trajectory of an asteroid that entered Earth’s atmosphere over Germany. In our analysis this week, we’ll be looking at 1) how NASA made the detection, and what we know about the circumstances surrounding the incident, 2) details about the Scout system, and how it works, and 3) rapid response and mitigation strategies for future potentially deadly asteroid events.

Quote of the Week

“If the dinosaurs had a space program, they would not be extinct.”

– Carl Sagan

Latest News: In recent coverage from The Debrief, the UK Ministry of Defense has announced the first successful downing of an aerial threat using its DragonFire combat laser system. Speaking of lasers, NASA also recently revealed that a laser beam was fired from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) at a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface. We reveal the reason why, and much more. You’ll find links to all our recent stories and other items at the end of this newsletter. 

Podcasts: In podcasts from The Debrief, on The Debrief Weekly ReportMJ, Steph, and Kenna Castleberry travel deep into the Amazon rainforest in search of a hidden and elusive 2,500-year-old civilization. Meanwhile, this week on The Micah Hanks Program I look at the idea of whether there is a technological “quickening” as humanity careens toward an uncertain future, as I am joined for a wide-reaching discussion by author Whitley Strieber. You can get all of The Debrief’s podcasts by heading over to our Podcasts Page.

Video News: In the latest installment of Rebelliously Curious, Chrissy Newton is joined by computer scientist Jaques Vallée for an in-depth discussion about the intersection between AI and the U.S. government’s studies of UAP. You can check out this, and other great content from The Debrief on our official YouTube Channel.

With housekeeping behind us, it’s time to look at a recent event involving a space object that approached Earth, and how NASA was able to get the word out about its approach well ahead of time.

Advance Detection of an Asteroid Impact

In the early morning hours of Sunday, January 21, an asteroid approached Earth, colliding with the atmosphere over Germany and disintegrating at 1:32 a.m. local time.

The asteroid, later designated 2024 BX1, was first spotted within three hours of its impact with Earth’s atmosphere by Krisztián Sárneczky at the Piszkéstető Mountain Station of the Konkoly Observatory near Budapest, Hungary. At no time did the small space object, roughly three feet wide, ever pose a threat to anyone on the ground.

Anticipated trajectory of asteroid 2024 BX1 based on data collected by NASA (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Similar events involving innocuous asteroids occur frequently, so it’s easy to understand why some would question what made this space object any different. The simple reason is that about an hour and a half before the asteroid made impact with Earth’s atmosphere, it was detected by NASA’s Scout impact hazard system, marking a notable step toward being able to provide advance warning about where future, potentially deadly asteroid impacts might occur.

Scouting for Deadly Asteroids

According to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, Scout offers trajectory analysis and hazard assessment for objects detected on the Near-Earth Object Confirmation Page (NEOCP) maintained by the Minor Planet Center. “Scout continually monitors the objects on the NEOCP, and for each provides the following orbital, ephemeris, and hazard assessment information,” a summary of the program reads.

Although objects on the NEOCP page are unconfirmed, they represent potential space objects that can be confirmed as asteroids through additional observations. Once verified, the objects are given official designations and are removed from the NEOCP and Scout.

Scout succeeded in detecting the object that burned up over Germany, producing a bright fireball that observers on the ground as far away as the Czech Republic reportedly observed. Although the primary asteroid was destroyed during reentry, NASA says that smaller meteorite fragments may have reached the ground to the west of Berlin.

Congress has tasked NASA with reporting on essentially all near-Earth objects, or NEOs, regardless of size, although NEOs 140 meters and larger are the ones deemed a serious hazard if an impact were to occur. Fortunately, these are much larger than 2024 BX1, and despite its small size, the recent impact clearly demonstrated Scout’s capabilities.

Rapid Response in Tracking NEOs

Within 27 minutes, three observations of 2024 BX1 made their way to the NEOCP, allowing Scout to identify that an impact was possible. Fortunately, in this case, the rapid response from astronomers quickly ruled out any significant chance of danger resulting from the asteroid, although a 100% probability of impact with the atmosphere was determined within seventy minutes of the object’s first detection.

Many observers in Germany and surrounding areas observed the event, and photos of 2024 BX1’s disintegration appeared online shortly after the incident.

2024 BX1
2024 BX1 is seen burning up as it passes over Germany (Credit: Augustus Platz Live Cam via Denis Vida/X).

2024 BX1 is not the first asteroid that has been tracked before impacting Earth’s atmosphere. In October 2008, a similar, but slightly larger object (approximately 13 feet across) designated 2008 TC3, also entered Earth’s atmosphere and produced a fireball as it broke up over Sudan. Another incident occurred last year when 2023 CX1 was detected just seven hours before impacting Earth’s atmosphere over France.

Fortunately, Scout has proven effective at spotting these objects, all of which were far too small to pose a threat. If a larger object were to approach and an impact with the planet became inevitable, warnings could be issued in advance based on the object’s trajectory, and residents in the anticipated impact zone may potentially have time to evacuate or take other necessary action.

For now, detecting smaller objects like 2024 BX1 and its predecessors is not only demonstrating our growing ability to warn about potentially dangerous impacts in the future, but also providing useful data that helps NASA and its partners plan for those events, and how best to mitigate the dangers they could represent in the years ahead.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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