Earth’s Planetary defence mechanism celebrates spotting asteroid 3.5 hours before impact

An asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere on November 19 and broke up over the skies in Ontario, Canada. Roughly 1 meter (3 feet) wide, the asteroid was named 2022 WJ1 and was on a collision course with Earth. However, NASA says that this was not a surprise as it was detected about 3.5 hours before the impact, making it the sixth instance when an asteroid was detected before entering the atmosphere. 

“The planetary defense community really demonstrated their skill and readiness with their response to this short-warning event,” said Kelly Fast, from the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) at NASA Headquarters said in an official statement.

“Such harmless impacts become spontaneous real-world exercises and give us confidence that NASA’s planetary defense systems are capable of informing the response to the potential for a serious impact by a larger object.”

NASA’s system of detecting asteroids

This particular asteroid, the 2022 WJ1, was detected using the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona in Tucson on November 18. NASA then also used its Scout impact hazard assessment system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to calculate the object’s possible trajectory and chances of impact. NASA’s Scout revealed that the asteroid had a 25% probability of hitting Earth’s atmosphere and the impact location stretched from the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast of North America to Mexico. After refining the data, astronomers confirmed a 100% impact probability and determined the location as Southern Ontario at 1:57 pm IST on November 19.

“Small objects such as this one can only be detected when they are very close to Earth, so if they are headed for an impact, time is of the essence to collect as many observations as possible,” Shantanu Naidu, navigation engineer and Scout operator at JPL, said in a statement.

Asteroids are considered one of the biggest natural threats that Earth faces. Scientists believe that an asteroid impact might bring another mass extinction and wipe out humans like the dinosaurs that existed 66 million years ago. In order to mitigate the threat if not fully eradicate it, NASA launched the DART mission last year which ended in a success in September. Lessons learned from this mission will be used to develop technology that could help protect our planet from an asteroid collision.

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