"Potentially dangerous" asteroid flashes past Earth

Better asteroid research part of President Obama’s NASA budget increase

2005 YU55 from Arecibo
A 1,300 ft or about a quarter-mile long asteroid passed Earth last week at a distance of 1.5 million miles. 

The near-Earth asteroid named 2005 YU55 is on the list of "potentially hazardous asteroids" which is kept by the Minor Planet Center, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.   

NASA telescopes watch cosmic violence, mysteries unravel 

However, it was removed from the "Risk Page" maintained by NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory because astronomers got enough of a look at it through high-precision radar that they said the asteroid had no chance of an impact with the Earth for the next 100 years, according to a release from Cornell University. 

The asteroid was seen with the Arecibo Telescope's planetary radar on April 19, 2010, when it was 6X the distance to the Moon, according to Michael Nolan, director of the Arecibo Observatory. The Arecibo telescope is managed by Cornell University the National Science Foundation. Arecibo observations showed that the asteroid was about twice as large as previously estimated, Cornell stated. 

Spotting such asteroids is a hot topic among space observers. Earlier this year a report found that combinations of space- and ground-based telescopes may be the most economically palpable defenses NASA can mount against asteroids and comets heading toward Earth, but there are more advanced defenses involving spacecraft and nuclear explosions that might be plausible in the future. 

The report, "Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies," issued in January from scientists at the National Research Council on what options NASA has to detect more near-Earth objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets that could pose a hazard to Earth. 

The same council issued a preliminary report in 2009 saying imminent impacts (such as those with very short warning times of hours or weeks) require better current discovery capabilities. Existing surveys are not designed for this purpose; they are designed to discover more-distant NEOs and to provide years of advance notice for possible impacts. In the past, objects with short warning times have been discovered serendipitously as part of surveys having different objectives. Search strategies for discovering imminent impacts need to be considered, and current surveys may need to be changed.

No matter what though, the report says the $4 million the US currently spends annually to search for comets and asteroids is insufficient to meet a congressionally mandated requirement on NASA to detect NEOs that could threaten Earth.

President Obama has proposed that NASA's NEO program be increased from $3.7 million in 2009 to $20.3 million in 2011.

Objects as large as that strike Earth only about once every 100 million years on average, the report notes. NASA has been highly successful at detecting and tracking objects 1 kilometer in diameter or larger, and continues to search for these large objects. The report notes that NASA has managed to accomplish some of the killer asteroids mandate with existing telescopes but with over 6,000 known objects and countless others the task is relentless.

Objects down to sizes of about 140 meters in diameter -- which NASA has been mandated to survey for -- would cause regional damage; such impacts happen on average every 30,000 years, the report says.

The report recommends that NASA monitor for smaller objects -- those down to 30 to 50 meters in diameter -- which the report says recent research suggests can be highly destructive.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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