A New Count of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids
May 16, 2012: Observations from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have led to the best assessment yet of our solar system's population of potentially hazardous asteroids. Also known as "PHAs," these asteroids have orbits that come within five million miles (about eight million kilometers) of Earth, and they are big enough to survive passing through Earth's atmosphere and cause damage on a regional, or greater, scale.
The asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE mission, called NEOWISE, sampled 107 PHAs to make predictions about the population as a whole. Findings indicate there are roughly 4,700 PHAs, plus or minus 1,500, with diameters larger than 330 feet (about 100 meters). So far, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of these objects have been found.
While previous estimates of PHAs predicted similar numbers, they were rough approximations. NEOWISE has generated a more credible estimate of the objects' total numbers and sizes. Because the WISE space telescope detected the infrared light, or heat, of asteroids, it was able to pick up both light and dark objects, resulting in a more representative look at the entire population.
"The NEOWISE analysis shows us we've made a good start at finding those objects that truly represent an impact hazard to Earth," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observation Program at NASA Headquarters. "But we've many more to find, and it will take a concerted effort during the next couple of decades to find all of them that could do serious damage or be a mission destination in the future."
The new analysis suggests that about twice as many PHAs as previously thought reside in low-inclination orbits, which are roughly aligned with the plane of Earth's orbit.
"Our team was surprised to find the overabundance of low-inclination PHAs," said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Because they will tend to make more close approaches to Earth, these targets can provide the best opportunities for the next generation of human and robotic exploration."
The NEOWISE analysis suggests a possible origin for the low-inclinaton PHAs: Many of them could have originated from a collision between two asteroids in the main belt lying between Mars and Jupiter. A larger body with a low-inclination orbit may have broken up in the main belt, causing some of the fragments to drift into orbits closer to Earth and eventually become PHAs.
The lower-inclination PHAs appear to be somewhat brighter and smaller than other near-Earth asteroids. The discovery that PHAs tend to be bright says something about their composition; they are more likely to be either stony, like granite, or metallic. This type of information is important in assessing the space rocks' potential hazards to Earth. The composition of the bodies would affect how quickly they might burn up in our atmosphere if an encounter were to take place.
"The NEOWISE project, which wasn't originally planned as part of WISE, has turned out to be a huge bonus," said Mainzer. "Everything we can learn about these objects helps us understand their origins and fate."
The NEOWISE results have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
The WISE spacecraft scanned the sky twice in infrared light before entering hibernation mode in early 2011. It catalogued hundreds of millions of objects, including super-luminous galaxies, stellar nurseries and closer-to-home asteroids. The NEOWISE project snapped images of about 600 near-Earth asteroids, about 135 of which were new discoveries. Because the telescope detected the infrared light, or heat, of asteroids, it was able to pick up both light and dark objects, resulting in a more representative look at the entire population. The infrared data allowed astronomers to make good measurements of the asteroids' diameters and, when combined with visible light observations, how much sunlight they reflect.
JPL manages, and operates the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing and archiving take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
More information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/wise and http://jpl.nasa.gov/wise .