Opening a Window of Discovery on the Dynamic Universe

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs)

Image of asteroid 253 Mathilde taken by the NEAR spacecraft from a distance of 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). The part of the asteroid shown is about 36 by 29 miles (59 by 47 kilometers) across. Mathilde's angular shape is believed to result from a history of violent impacts.

Cosmic impact has the potential to eliminate humankind as we know it. Therefore, it is critical for us to systematically assess the magnitude of this threat. The atmospheric, geological, and biological effects of cosmic impact have become apparent only since the early 1980s, when the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction was first linked to the impact of a 10-km asteroid. Even much smaller impactors still possess enormous energies and may cause local to regional devastation.

At Congress's direction, NASA has supported a ground-based program to identify the NEOs larger than one kilometer in diameter. The kilometer-sized impactors would be globally devastating, but much smaller projectiles would wreak unimaginable local havoc and are much more frequent. The high-altitude explosion of a body 80 meters in diameter above Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908 flattened trees over a broad area. A differently aimed impact of this scale could flatten a modern city, with deaths in the millions. Bodies larger than about 100 m in size cause ground-level explosions in the giga-ton, or billions of tons, range. Such impacts would devastate whole countries. There is about a 1% chance that such an impact will occur in the next century.

Assessment of the Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA) population down to 100-meter scales, as part of an organized inventory of the small bodies of the solar system, is recognized as a high priority for NASA's Solar System Exploration program. Extrapolations from existing surveys suggest that the number of PHAs larger than 100 m is on the order of 10,000 to 20,000. These bodies are too faint to have been detected by the current surveys, and almost all remain undetected.

For each object, we need to determine the orbital elements with accuracy sufficient to predict the probability of terrestrial impact within the next 100 years. This time scale gives sufficiently early warning for the development of mitigation strategies, as needed, and is compatible with the intrinsic time scale for dynamical chaos among the PHAs. For those objects with a non-negligible impact probability, we also need physical observations to determine the size, which, when combined with a "typical" density yields an estimate of the kinetic energy of the projectile. These goals can be achieved with the LSST.

This graph shows current estimates for numbers of near-earth asteroids and how often they might impact Earth by size, color-coded by the amount of damage they could cause.

There are tens of thousands of uncharted PHAs of significant size. Their potential damage on Earth impact is shown in the chart above. The sky must be surveyed several times per month at a sensitivity 100 times that of current PHA surveys to find the PHAs down to 100 meters in size.

This graph shows how quickly an LSST survey optimized to look for NEOs could find 90% of them, versus an unoptimized survey.

The above graph shows the completeness ratio of the LSST survey for two different survey scenarios: a survey which is optimized to look for NEOs, and a standard survey.

The LSST will be able to detect objects as faint as 24.5 in magnitude in a 30-second visit, enabling it to detect 140-meter NEOs as far away as the Main Belt asteroids. Depending on survey strategies, the LSST could detect between 60-90% of all PHAs larger than 140 meters in diameter.

The LSST will be capable of early detection as well as orbit determination. The warning time before impact depends on the asteroid's size, its orbit, and the cadence and sensitivity of the observing system. For 45m objects, the LSST warning time would be about 1-3 months, depending on their orbits. Note that the telescope would also detect such an object during three prior close approaches. As an example of a very different hazardous object—the 3 km large comet C/1996 B2 Hyakutake, which passed within 0.10 AU from Earth in 1996—LSST could provide a warning time of 8 years, with over 500 observations over that period.

Image Credit: 
From top: NASA/GSFC; A. W. Harris, SSI/LSST; LSST

Financial support for LSST comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Cooperative Agreement No. 1258333, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science under Contract No. DE-AC02-76SF00515, and private funding raised by the LSST Corporation. The NSF-funded LSST Project Office for construction was established as an operating center under management of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).  The DOE-funded effort to build the LSST camera is managed by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC).
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science. NSF supports basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future.   




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