Asteroids are the small rocky bodies in the inner Solar System orbiting the Sun. There are millions of them flying around space and their collisions – known as impact events – have played a significant role in shaping many planets. NASA is constantly watching the cosmos, categorising any Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) if they could pose a threat to life on Earth.
However, Dr Natalie Starkey warned during her 2018 book “Catching Stardust” that a surprise space rock could catch the space agency off guard.
She wrote last year: “We have to remember that we aren’t totally safe as there are always those rogue objects out there than could sneak up on us.
“Of course, we can’t study every single object in space – there are just too many of them – but the more we find out about the ones we can see and approach with a spacecraft, the better prepared we will be to deal with the others, even those we’ve not seen up close before.
“We can even be well-placed to deal with objects that give us very little warning of their arrival on our planet.
Natalie Starkey fears a rogue asteroid could affect Earth
NASA tracks asteroids that could pose a threat
Current telescope technology can’t spot everything, and we need the ability to cross-reference telescope data
“Over the next few decades, we have the opportunity to build up a detailed knowledge of space objects in our neighbourhood, and even ones that are still very far from us.
“We can view them remotely with the ground and space-based telescopes and we have the chance to visit some of them with a spacecraft to build on these findings, providing the finer details of their composition and structure.”
Dr Starkey went on to give a warning over NASA’s current limitations.
She added: “In the future, as technological developments are made, ground-based observations might be all we need to learn everything about an object in space, even when it is a great distance away.
“Current telescope technology can’t spot everything, and we need the ability to cross-reference telescope data with spacecraft observation and sampling to provide the ground truth.
Natalie Starkey revealed all in her 2018 book
“Certainly, for the time being, we need spacecraft, and eventually humans to go up there and explore and explore the space around us in the hope that one day we can save ourselves from an impending impact.
“In the meantime, we can learn about where we came from, how we got here and whether we are really alone in the vastness of stars, planets and the active vacuum of space that surrounds our tiny planet.”
Asteroid 101955 Bennu, formally known as 1999 RQ36, is a potentially hazardous object listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale.
Investigators have already warned the space agency that it could be devastating if they do not act.
According to a study by scientist Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, the 1999 asteroid may impact the Earth.
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There are millions of asteroids in space
NASA wants to visit Bennu
Dr Sansaturio warned in a report for the Solar System journal Icarus that there is a good chance of the asteroid striking.
She told Universe Today in 2010: “The total impact probability of asteroid 1999 RQ36 can be estimated as 0.00092, approximately one-in-a-thousand chance, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182.”
However, NASA has a less destructive move for Bennu.
The space agency is currently running a mission with its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to find out more about the rock.
Four asteroids that could strike Earth
The spacecraft spent two years chasing Bennu down, before orbiting it for another two years and taking samples.
Then, in 2023, it will blast back to Earth to allow scientists from around the world to study it.
The mission team is particularly interested in learning the role that asteroids like Bennu – dark, primitive and apparently carbon-rich – may have played in creating life on Earth.
It will also help scientists to refine the odds of a strike on Earth.