OPINION (SS) – Astronomers detected thousands of previously unknown near-Earth asteroids last year. And this record may be broken this year AGAIN… Two weeks ago, a 340-meter-wide space rock named Apophis whizzed safely past Earth.
The next time it returns, in 2029, won’t be so uneventful: Apophis will come within 40,000 kilometers of the planet, skimming just above the region where some high-flying satellites orbit. It will be the first time that astronomers will be able to watch such a big asteroid pass so close to us.
Last week’s fly-by gave scientists a chance to test the worldwide planetary defense system, in which astronomers quickly assess the chances of an asteroid hitting Earth as they follow its path across the night sky.
“It’s a fire drill with a real asteroid,” says Vishnu Reddy, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who coordinated the observing campaign. The Apophis fly-by highlights how much astronomers have learned about near-Earth asteroids — and how much they still have to learn.
Since 1998, when NASA kicked off the biggest search for near-Earth asteroids, scientists have detected more than 25,000 of them. And 2020 turned out to be a record year for discoveries. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting many of the surveys, astronomers cataloged 2,958 previously unknown near-Earth asteroids over the course of the year. READ MORE