Search for Near-Earth Asteroids Needs a Speed Boost

Few Asteroids Look Ripe for Astronaut Visit By 2025
Only a few near-Earth objects would fit NASA's proposed guidelines for a manned mission to an asteroid. (Image credit: Emily Lakdawalla/Ted Stryk)

At the current rate that near-Earth asteroids are being detected, it will take astronomers 15 years to identify every one of significant size and even more than 10 times longer to characterize their materials, a new study suggests.

Astronomers should dramatically ramp up the sky surveys, not only to better prepare for threats to Earth but also to exploit asteroids' contents, scientists say.

These asteroids could be mined one day for valuable metals such as platinum and cobalt, yet at the current rate it will take 190 years to characterize their materials, Charlie Beeson, a student in astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the University of Southampton, told an audience last month at the 221st annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif.

Increasing the breadth of existing sky surveys and using an orbiting mission to search for asteroids could speed up the cosmic hunt, Beeson said.

Danger and opportunity

Like the moon, Earth is pockmarked with craters caused by asteroid impacts, suggesting that such strikes happen frighteningly often, Beeson told

For instance, during the Tunguska event in 1908 in Siberia, up to 80 million trees were wiped out in a mostly uninhabited 830-square-mile area (2,150 square kilometers) by an exploding space rock. The meteorite blast packed up to 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, Beeson said.

But asteroids aren't just potential threats to Earth's safety, they are also potential  sources of rich veins of platinum, cobalt, zinc, antimony and other valuable metals that might one day be harvested by manned missions. They could even be mined for hydrogen and oxygen for space travelers refueling their rockets, Beeson said. [Deep Space Industries' Asteroid-Mining Vision (Gallery)]

Scientists have estimated that a million or more near-Earth asteroids lurk in the solar system, of which just more than 9,000 have been identified to date. For big space rocks — those at least 330 feet (100 meters) across — those numbers are about 20,000 and 6,000, respectively, Beeson said.

She and her colleagues looked at the historical rate of  discovery and found that, at the current pace, it will take about 15 years to identify all 20,000 of the jumbo near-Earth asteroids.

Most of the missing asteroids are traveling by during the daytime or traveling through a patch of the sky not watched by existing surveys, she found.

To speed discovery, the team should expand the patch of sky observed by two programs, the Mount Lemmon and Catalina sky surveys, she said. To find asteroids that are crossing by Earth only during the day, scientists should prioritize the B612 Sentinel mission, which aims to send a telescope into a Venus-like orbit around the sun, Beeson added.

"Venus travels quite a bit faster, so it would scan the sky a lot quicker."

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Tia Ghose
Live Science Assistant Managing Editor

Tia is the assistant managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science, a sister site. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.