A new app released by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) provides users a unique tour of the varied array of space rocks known as Near Earth objects (NEOs) currently surrounding our planet. The 3D real-time visualization tool’s developers say folks can also use this interface to learn all about the human spacecraft that have visited some of these objects with a simple click of a mouse, as well as those schduled in the future.
BACKGROUND: EARTH IS SURROUNDED BY NEOs
According to a recent press release from NASA, “Thousands of asteroids and dozens of comets are discovered every single year, some of which – called near-Earth objects (NEOs) – follow orbits that pass through the inner solar system. Now totaling about 28,000, their numbers rising daily, these objects are tracked carefully by NASA-funded astronomers in case any might pose an impact threat to our planet.”
Such data has been particularly useful when hunting for potential threats to Earth or our space-based assets, but this type of data hasn’t been readily available to the general public.
The new NASA app hopes to change that.
ANALYSIS: NASA PUTS ITS EYES ON ASTEROIDS
Dubbed “Eyes on Asteroids,” the 3D interactive app displays the orbit of every single known near Earth object, providing a user interface filled with details of these space bodies. The app also has a slide bar at the bottom, which allows the user to effectively move forward and backward in time to watch the orbital motions of the entire field, or even track future missions to these far out space bodies.
And, according to the press release, “The visualization receives twice-daily updates with the latest data, so as soon as a new object is discovered and its orbit is calculated, it’s added to the app.”
The app also allows the user to explore the details of the various missions preciously sent by NASA and others to explore these NEOs, including “detailed animated models of those spacecraft and their asteroid or comet encounters.”
“We wanted Eyes on Asteroids to be as user-friendly as possible while telling the stories about humanity’s exploration of these fascinating objects,” said Jason Craig, the technical producer of the Visualization Technology Applications and Development team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which developed the Eyes on Asteroids app. “Every NEO can be found inside the app, as can most of the spacecraft that have visited these objects.”
OUTLOOK: A TOOL TO STUDY THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
Along with data on past missions and their targets, the app is also designed to look into the future. For instance, the recently launched Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission, which is designed to test humanity’s ability to redirect an incoming asteroid, can be moved ahead in time to its planned arrival date of September 26th, 2022, when it will smash into its target.
The app also includes a feature called “Asteroid Watch,” which lets users track the next five “near misses,” or asteroids that will come close enough to crashing into Earth that they are given this particular designation. The Debrief covered one such near miss just last month, and unlike those featured in the app, no one saw that asteroid coming.
“We were keen to include this feature, as asteroid close approaches often generate a lot of interest,” said Craig. “The headlines often depict these close approaches as ‘dangerously’ close, but users will see by using Eyes just how distant most of these encounters really are.”
Finally, NASA points out that the app is free to use, and operates in most browsers, so it does not have to be downloaded.
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