We are off the beaten track here, but some interesting scientific articles in the news raise questions. The first news is that on July 24, an asteroid (named 2019OK) is larger than a football field that passes from Earth at a distance of 65,000 kilometers. That's less than a fifth of the distance from Earth to the Moon. From an astronomical point of view, this is an extreme failure. If it had hit us, it would not have been an extermination event, as the dinosaurs would have experienced, but it would have done a lot of damage no matter where it came from.
The second part of this story may be more alarming. Although NASA had followed all the dangerous orbit near Earth's orbit for years, nobody saw it until 24 hours before it arrived. Even if we had a terrific (and still fictional) plan to distract deadly asteroids, it would have been impossible for us to tie our shoes before one set the world on fire. This prompted Buzzfeed to ask how these huge rocks keep sneaking up on us. A FOIA request to NASA led to background discussions in the agency.
"This object has slipped through a number of our nets," wrote Paul Chodas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an e-mail to his colleagues following the July 25 flyby, describing what he calls the "sneaky" Space rock calls. "I wonder how many times this situation has happened without the asteroid ever being discovered."
The emails were received in response to a request from the Freedom of Information Act and provide a detailed look behind the scenes as NASA officials got confused to find out why the asteroid was first discovered when it was almost released Earth passed by. Other emails show the agency's internal researchers disappointed with a media response that described the event as a "city killer" who "just missed the earth".
"This email has come to us, and it's an interesting story about the boundaries of our current survey network," Johnson wrote in an e-mail dated July 26.
Although it's easy to point fingers, we should probably not blame NASA so quickly. One of my favorite radio hosts, Micah Hanks, thinks it's short-sighted to blame NASA for this miss. In fact, it's amazing that we find so many of these rocks and track them as they are.
Part of what makes these "near-misses" so disturbing is that we even see them. As our asteroid recognition capabilities continue to improve, we actually see a better rate of success in recognizing these objects, while they may not have been seen in the past.
The really sobering idea is to think about how in the past there were many times larger or nearer objects that passed Earth without us even having an idea what happened to 2019 OK. But instead of being a failure of NASA and other space agencies around the world, this is a clear indication that our planetary defense science is steadily improving.
I end up somewhere between these two schools of thought. Like Micah, I believe that NASA do what they can with what they have. And over time, we'll likely improve detection and potential interception. However, this does not mean that there is no need for improvement. Or "guilty", if you wish.
Already in 2005, Congress passed a law that instructed NASA to track the most dangerous asteroids passing by. And since then they have made remarkable progress. However, as Buzzfeed rightly points out, NASA has requested (and needed) larger and more advanced telescopes and spacecraft to accomplish this task. Congress has failed to enforce funding for these resources.
So, if there's any blame, we should probably turn it to Congress. They have made the search for near-Earth asteroids an at least partially unfunded mandate. You can probably do a much better job, but you need more than two Dixie cups attached to a string. At the same time, we may have to adapt to all our expectations and remain anchored in reality. Although it may be distressing, I will return to a sober quote from Micah in the article linked above. "In the end, a space object large enough to cause far-reaching damage will hit the earth – it's not a question of whether but simply of when . "