‘This one did sneak up on us’: Internal NASA emails reveal how it almost ‘missed’ a football-field-sized asteroid so big it could have destroyed a CITY when it whizzed past Earth in July
- Scientists announced the asteroid discovery just hours before its close approach
- Asteroid 2019 OK was about 100 metres wide and came within 70,000 km of Earth
- At its closest approach in July, it was closer to Earth than the moon
- Experts say impact from object of this size would be enough to ‘devastate a city’
An asteroid which had a ‘close pass’ with Earth in July had not been picked up by NASA until the agency was told about it just hours before it swept past.
Internal emails have revealed the US space agency was caught by surprise by the asteroid named ‘2019 OK’.
It passed about 40,400 miles away from Earth – only 16 per cent of the way to the moon – and was the largest rock to have done so in almost 100 years.
Emails obtained through Freedom of Information revealed one NASA staffer telling colleagues the asteroid had ‘slipped through the net’.
Travelling at 55,000mph and measuring 426 feet by 187ft (57m x 130m), NASA only realised 2019 OK was coming 24 hours before it passed.
The 2019 OK asteroid was only noticed 24 hours before passing Earth at a distance of about 40,000 miles, travelling at 55,000 miles per hour (stock image)
Buzzfeed News revealed internal emails from the space agency which saw staff there giving one another the heads up that they might be asked about it.
One, from NASA’s planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, said: ‘Because there may be media coverage tomorrow, I’m alerting you that in about 30 mins a 57-130 meter sized asteroid will pass Earth at only 0.19 lunar distances (~48,000 miles).
‘2019 OK was spotted about 24 hrs ago.’
Asteroid 2019 OK passed relatively close to Earth, at about 70,000 kilometers away (43, 496 miles). For an object of its size, many said that was too close for comfort
An observatory in Brazil was the first to spot 2019 OK and alert the team in the US.
After the asteroid had passed a news release warned that it could have destroyed an area measuring 50 miles across, something which only happens about once every 3,000 years.
NASA’s Paul Chodas wrote in an email two days after 2019 OK had passed: ‘This object slipped through a whole series of our capture nets.
‘I wonder how many times this situation has happened without the asteroid being discovered at all.’
The emails seen by Buzzfeed showed how NASA scrambled to work out why it hadn’t seen the asteroid before it was so close.
At its closest point the space rock, which was so large that experts had dubbed it a ‘city killer’, was closer to Earth than the moon is.
Experts realised at the time that it had been a close shave and the NASA emails add to the sense that space surveillance isn’t perfect.
‘The lack of warning shows how quickly potentially dangerous asteroids can sneak up on us,’ Monash University astronomer Michael Brown wrote in an essay for The Conversation in July.
For an object of 2019 OK’s size, many said its close pass was a bit too close for comfort.
While it wasn’t large enough to bring on an Armageddon-style event reminiscent of the dinosaur-killing asteroid, Brown noted that a moderate-size impact ‘could devastate a city.’
By the time of its closest approach, asteroid 2019 OK would have been bright enough in the sky to be seen with just a pair of binoculars, the astronomer says.
‘Such bright fly-by isn’t often — once per a few years if my memory serves,’ Caltech astronomer YE Quanzhi noted on Twitter.
HOW IS NASA STEPPING UP ITS EFFORTS TO STOP DEADLY ASTEROIDS HITTING EARTH?
The US government is stepping up efforts to protect the planet from incoming asteroids that could wipe out entire regions or even continents.
The National Science and Technology Council released a 20-page report on June 21 calling for improved asteroid detection, tracking and deflection.
The initiative backed by Nasa, federal emergency officials, and the White House aims to coordinate efforts over the next 10 years to detect and respond to possible threats in Earth’s vicinity, should they arise.
Near-Earth objects (NEOs) include all asteroids and comets that orbit within 30 million miles of Earth, Nasa said.
The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to protect the planet from incoming asteroids that could wipe out entire regions or even continents (stock image)
While the probability of an asteroid impact may be low, the effects could be cataclysmic.
For now, scientists know of no asteroids or comets heading our way. But one could sneak up on us – and that’s why the government wants a better plan.
Nasa’s planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, says scientists have found 95 percent of all near-Earth objects measuring one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) or bigger.
But the hunt is still on for the remaining five per cent and smaller rocks that could still inflict big damage.
The new document, titled ‘The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan,’ established five strategic goals to reduce the risk of an asteroid strike.
These included better methods for detecting and tracking the objects, improved modelling, the development of technologies to deflect NEOs, increased international cooperation on the subject, and the establishment of emergency procedures.