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NASA Emails Show How An "Invasive" Asteroid Escaped Detection

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Wikimedia Commons

In late July, an asteroid record setting struck 40,400 miles above the Earth, the largest rock space in nearly a century. But perhaps more troubling than the flyby itself is how much NASA caught it by surprise, according to internal agency documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. to observe the incoming space in the space. The football-field-sized asteroid, dubbed "201

9 OK," is also drawing attention to decades of congressional failures to fix the problem, experts said.

"Since there may be media coverage tomorrow, I am alerting you that in about 30 mins a 57-130 meter asteroid will pass Earth at only 0.19 lunar distances (~ 48,000 miles)," Lindley Johnson wrote , NASA's planetary defense official, in a July 24 email alert sent to other space agency experts. "OK OK was seen 24 hours ago."

Flying at about 55,000 miles per hour, the asteroid came through with little warning, first seen that day through a small Brazilian observatory. The flyby approaches five times closer to Earth. than distance to the moon – a close shave of astronomical standards.

"If 2019 OK enters and storms the Earth's skies over land, an explosive wave could create localized destruction over an area nearly 50 miles across," according to a news release sent by agency weeks after the flyby. This effect is estimated to occur once every 3,000 years.

"Our current asteroid search capabilities are not as high as they should be."

"This matter has slipped through the whole series of our retrieval nets," Paul Chodas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in an email to his colleagues two days after the July 25 flyby, describing in what he calls "sneaky" space rock. "I wonder how many times this situation has happened without finding the asteroid."

The emails were obtained in response to the Freedom of Information Act's request and provide details, behind the scenes as NASA officials scrambled to find out why the asteroid wasn't spotted until it has almost decimated the past Earth. Other emails show the agency's internal scientists frustrated by a media response calling the event a "city killer" that "just missed the world."

"This one has given up on us and this is an interesting story on the limitations of our current survey network," Johnson wrote in an email on July 26.

The near miss of the incoming asteroid points in a long battle between NASA and Congress to come up with a reliable way to watch for "potentially dangerous" asteroids. Lawmakers directed the space agency to detect 90% of hazardous asteroids under a 2005 law, but they did not fund telescopes and spacecrafts that were good enough to do the job, the US National Academies of Sciences concluded. a June report.

"It's no wonder something like that would get us by surprise," MIT planet scientist Richard Binzel told BuzzFeed News. "Our current asteroid search capabilities are not up to the level they deserve."

NASA-supported ATLAS planes took off the asteroid on July 21, days before its close approach, but were later detected by clouds to be recognized as a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) by the agency's space. The Pan-STARRS Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii spotted the asteroid even earlier, on June 28 and July 7, but then was too foggy and distant to trigger an alert.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Chodas claimed that 2019 OK never posed a threat to the Earth.

"The automated systems that calculated the trajectories and the chance of impact … worked as designed," he said. "The 2019 OK issue is not in [NASA] or in [Minor Planet Center]," but the survey reports for identifying hazardous spaces.

Still, Chodas said the latter discovery was "a surprise to the planet's defense community" and that the event needed further investigation.

On July 25, NASA officials were prompted to dig deeper for answers following a grim news report that was transmitted identifying the asteroid as a "city killer" who was "missed" just in the world. " The city classification that killed the ranking of NASA officials traced it back to the Sydney Morning Herald, according to emails.

The Herald report "quoted two Australian astronomers – does anyone know them? So, it would be helpful to ask them to think before they talk" about things like "nuclear explosion, "says a July 27 email sent to Chodas and Johnson, the planet's defense official (the sender's name has been confirmed). "I don't know if the Sydney reporter reached out to them or if they reached out to her. All that remains – including WaPo – is a simple repetition … This story also told me that we need to keep up the good work. in calming down the asteroid rhetoric – city-killers, nukes, etc. Also reach me. "19659003] The email prompted a blunt response from Lindley.

"What makes it so special is that Australia does nothing to support Planetary Defense," he said.

More than half of the emails returned to BuzzFeed The news contains more detailed complaints from NASA officials about "near miss" news outlets, with particular derision directed at Epoch Times, The Washington Post, and The Hill in their "lazy journalism." The emails include two harshly critical posts in the Post and Hill about its scope and the importance of reaching out to NASA experts directly for accurate information rather than interviewing a "random astronomer or, more worse, Voldemort. "

"An asteroid cannot be a 'city killer' when it flies Earth over 70,000 km, and if and when an asteroid effect can occur, it will not release any radiation radiation. . (- no wonder you went ballistic when you saw it ….), "said a July 27 email from an unnamed NASA official.

Other emails suggest that some within the space agency saw the flyby as clear evidence of the need for better discovery. An email sent to Lindley and Kelly Fast, Near-Earth Object Observation Program Manager at NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said "an important lesson here" is that the ATLAS telescope and the PAN-STARRS observatory "need to" detect slower objects. "

" The raison d & # 39; etre for ATLAS is seeing upcoming effects, "said the email, whose NASA sender was re-offered before being sent to BuzzFeed News. me this thing has been undetectably slow for almost 2 weeks! "

Binzel and other outside experts suggest the real lesson of 2019 OK is that Congress should fund a dedicated satellite monitoring, now waiting for $ 40 million to continue its design, equipped with an infrared telescope to detect incoming asteroids without facing the hassles of time, months, or peering into dazzling environments such as ground telescopes.

"It's a bit disturbing to me that this thing has been undetectably slow for almost 2 weeks!"

"The poor investigation from space is good for me to keep our world safe – or at least worry legitimately when asteroid killers approach short notice without doing anything," he said. Williams College astronomer Jay Pasachoff told BuzzFeed News. Ideally, he added, such a spacecraft would detect dangerous asteroids decades in advance so they could be deflected.

The House Science Committee, which learned about the asteroid from news reports, is still developing legislation that would allow NASA to build. an asteroid-spotting satellite, a majority of staff, who will only discuss the issue in the background, told BuzzFeed News. the committee has taken many steps since 1990, including the draft policy, "leading to NASA surveys to detect, monitor, catalog, and identify NEOs and the potential threats they pose, including also potential options for protecting the Earth from harmful NEOs. "

Last year, the White House Office of Science and Technology issued a NEO action plan, a set of guidelines that Federal government agencies must follow through to address the threat posed by the arth object in the next 10 years. But the report did not explain how the agencies could successfully carry out its mission, nor did the report call on Congress to recall additional funding to support the effort. it has been shown that objects near Earth have caught the public's attention, which is more interested in seeing NASA focusing on potential impacts than sending astronauts to the moon or Mars.

Despite NASA officials' attempts to calm the public and re-enter the asteroid media fear, according to emails, some scientists are ecstatic when they discover how important 2019 OK is.

"BTW, everyone, just for context, appears that 2019 OK is by far the largest asteroid. To pass it close to Earth in the last century!" Lindley, NASA's planetary defense official, wrote in an July 28 email to Chodas, Fast, and other NASA officials under the subject line "Not satisfied about the Wa shington Post story."

"Nothing big is predicted to be passed again. it will be up to Apophis in 2029, "he said. ●

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