Briefing

How dangerous are near-Earth asteroids? 5 key questions answered.

On Feb. 15, asteroid 2012 DA14, discovered a year ago, cleared Earth by a scant 17,200 miles. The same day, a smaller, unrelated asteroid that no one saw coming exploded 12 to 15 miles above Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. Events that day highlight the risk that near-Earth objects (NEOs) can pose – although to some extent, humans can counter them.

By , Staff writer

2. How many have been detected?

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    The path of asteroid 2012 DA14's approach to earth.
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Initially, astronomers hunted for objects half a mile wide or wider and found 862 – about 95 percent of all NEOs thought to be in this size class. Since 1995, they have counted smaller objects as well and have found a total of 9,730.

Of them, 1,379 are potentially hazardous, according to specialists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. These objects are at least 150 feet across, and their orbits bring them 7.5 million miles or closer to Earth. Some 155 of the potentially hazardous objects found so far are at least a half mile wide.

In 2005, Congress charged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with locating and tracking objects 500 feet across or larger by 2020. Progress has been slow. NASA’s NEO budget stayed flat at about $4 million between 2002 and 2010, although it was increased to $20.5 million for fiscal year 2012.

The smaller the NEO, the more of them there are. Astronomers figure they’ve spotted less than 1 percent of all the NEOs 100 feet or larger – which still can pack a wallop.

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