NASA: WISE Spacecraft Located Most Massive Near-Earth Asteroids, But 10 Percent Still Unaccounted For
The space agency said Thursday it has identified more than 90 percent of giant near-Earth asteroids, including ones as big as the one thought to have killed the dinosaurs eons ago. None poses a danger to the planet in the next several centuries.
NASA researchers also downgraded their estimate of the number of medium-sized asteroids, saying there are 44 percent fewer than previously believed. The downside is that scientists have yet to find many of these mid-sized asteroids, which could destroy a metropolitan city.
The updated census comes from data from NASA’s sky-mapping spacecraft named Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, which launched in 2009 to seek out near-Earth objects, galaxies, stars and other cosmic targets.
Unlike previous sky surveys, WISE has sensitive instruments that can pick out both dark and light objects, allowing it to get the most accurate count yet of near-Earth asteroids. The spacecraft takes a small sample of asteroids of varying sizes and then estimates how large the population would be.
Previous estimates put the number of medium-sized asteroids at 35,000, but WISE data indicate there are about 19,500 between 330 and 3,300 feet wide. Only about 5,200 have been found and scientists said there is still a lot of work left to identify the potentially hazardous ones.
By locating most of the giant asteroids, NASA has fulfilled a goal set by Congress in 1998. More recently, the space agency has been asked to find 90 percent of asteroids that are at least 460 feet in diameter – slightly smaller than the Superdome in New Orleans – by 2020.
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