On Feb. 15, 2013, at around sunrise, astronomers observed an exceedingly bright object streaking through the skies over Russia and finally exploded above the surface of the Earth at 97,000 feet. The effect of the blast was destruction of thousands of buildings and injuries for about 1,500 people in Chelyabinsk and the surrounding regions. The object happened to be a 20-meter-wide asteroid that no one knew of its existence until it emerged in the Earth’s atmosphere that day.
Michael B. Lund, Post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, says that a significant part of his research is to develop telescopes that can monitor the skies. The telescopes they have developed so far are being used to monitor other star systems and are further being designed to discover objects in the solar system such as the asteroid that collided with Earth.
Prior to its collapse, the Chelyabinsk meteor was orbiting the sun as an asteroid. Interestingly, such rocky objects are assumed to be limited to the asteroid belt between planets Mars and Jupiter. Nevertheless, there are numerous asteroids throughout the solar systems but some like the Chelyabinsk meteor are referred to as near-Earth objects.
The likely source of Chelyabinsk meteor could be the Apollo steroids which are more than 1,600. These asteroids are usually large and have orbits that may interfere with the Earth’s path. They are viewed as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) and that explains the severe effects in the case of collision with Earth.
There are traces of past collisions on the Moon but the Earth also has its fair share of scars. For instance, the Chicxulub crater on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was a result of the Chicxulub asteroid that also caused the extinction of dinosaurs.
The US government has taken the asteroid collision threat seriously. According to NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Congress require NASA to create a program that can search for NEOs. Thus, NASA was tasked to identify 90% of all NEOs with a diameter of more than 140 meters. In reaching this objective, a group of scientists is working on the building of a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile which will be essential in alerting astronomers of PHAs.
With sufficient financing from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the telescope will search for PHAs during its ten-year mission. It will observe the same region of the sky at hourly intervals and identify objects that have shifted position. However, even with the telescope, no one knows how to redirect the asteroids and avert danger on Earth.