PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A giraffe-sized asteroid struck off the coast of Iceland last Friday, but astronomers didn’t see it coming until just before it hit — leaving many to question how safe earth would be if a larger item had made contact instead.
“What’s unusual about this is that we weren’t expecting it,” OMSI Director of Space Science Education Jim Todd explained. “It showed up two hours before it entered the earth’s atmosphere and landed near Iceland.”
While Todd told KOIN 6 News the asteroid (titled 2022 EB5) was only 10 feet wide and was likely too small to cause any real damage, he said the way the space rock “snuck up on us” is a real cause for concern.
“It was not a huge asteroid, but the point is that people were surprised they weren’t notified that this particular large asteroid was heading towards the earth,” Todd explained. “So this has got a lot of people’s attention and yes, we should be worried.”
As the first notable asteroid strike of the year, Todd said 2022 EB5 would generally be classified as a “near-earth object,” and despite several Iceland residents reporting seeing a flash or hearing a boom as it descended, he said scientists have not yet discovered any debris left behind as a result of the impact.
So, why didn’t we see this coming?
According to Todd, there are several reasons why astronomers might miss asteroids dangerously approaching the earth’s atmosphere, including size, color and where the asteroids are positioned in relation to the planet.
Similar to the surprise attack Friday, Todd cited the famous asteroid which snuck up on Russia back in 2013. He said in that instance, scientists missed the threat because they were not able to see the massive rock as it came from the direction of the sun.
“Now what about this little guy? This asteroid was just hanging out in space, but it was small and dark,” Todd said. “It wasn’t really moving, but we were moving. And when we got close enough, earth’s gravitational pull sucked the asteroid down.”
Todd explained that there are several space monitoring systems that are devoted to identifying and tracking the hundreds of near-earth objects dancing around the planet’s upper atmosphere, but technology is not quite where it needs to be in order to eliminate pop-up encounters with asteroids.
“Our technology is improving, but this was one of those examples where I’m sure astronomers are asking themselves, ‘Why didn’t we know about this?’” Todd said. “I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘Gosh, we missed one, we better not let this happen again.’”
He added, “These are the kind of things that we hope to be prepared for in the event that an asteroid does head towards the earth.”
Todd told KOIN 6 News, while he hopes our technology is strong enough to detect and prevent sneak attacks from space, the reality is we are not fully protected.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “The sky is huge and there are millions of asteroids out there, so we’re not going to be able to find every single one. But our technology is better now than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”
According to Todd, as technology and understanding increases scientists will likely report more events, resulting in a rise in asteroid detections and events.
Although current technology is limited, Todd said agencies like NASA and ESA are actively devoting a surplus of time and resources to address the concerns surrounding asteroid strikes and the potential threat they pose.
He told KOIN 6 News beyond tracking the orbit and trajectory of common near-earth objects to ensure they do not connect with the earth, the agency recently launched its new DART mission, which will test striking asteroids before they have an opportunity to enter the atmosphere.
“DART is designed to experiment with an asteroid, and it’s actually going to deliberately crash into one that we know of, and we’re going to see the results,” Todd stated. “Would that change the trajectory or the angle, so that over time we can push it just enough so it will miss the earth?”
Todd said the public will soon find out, as the mission is slated to run its first test next September.
“I applaud NASA and ESA for doing these tests. I’d rather have it done now than wait until something is coming,” he said. “We’re going to learn from this, and if it doesn’t work we go back to the drawing board. But hopefully, it will prevent something like this from happening again.”
Until then, Todd suggested residents continue to look up to the skies and be the eyes for astronomers, if possible.
He told KOIN 6 News, if it weren’t for amateur astronomers like Krisztián Sárneczky who discovered 2022 EB5, some asteroid strikes could come without warning.
“Just keep looking up, and if you see an asteroid heading this way and let us know,” Todd said. “I’m not necessarily kidding, if you’re a citizen astronomer and you find an asteroid that doesn’t match current information, it’s wise to report it and that’s exactly what happened here.”