Meet the one NASA mission that could save us from extinction

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      Since it was first proposed back in 2006, this has been the major science goal of NASA’s NEO Surveyor mission. The mission would put a wide-field infrared space telescope into orbit, where it would have only one major science goal: to identify and determine the orbits of every potentially hazardous asteroid close to Earth. For a cost of just over half-a-billion dollars, we could:
      —identify practically every asteroid over 140 meters in size that poses a danger to Earth,
      —of all four types of asteroids, especially the otherwise-hard-to-get Atens and Atiras,
      —determine their initial orbits and then, with a ~2 week follow-up, further constrain them so they can be imaged with ground-based follow-up observations,
      —which will then allow us to calculate their long-term orbits, quantifying their danger to Earth,
      —and do the same thing for a large number of asteroids (but not all of them) under 140 meters, allowing us to estimate the population distribution of smaller objects as well.

      This would represent a tremendous leap forward in planetary protection, and one that’s long overdue. For those of you who’ve never heard of NEO Surveyor and don’t understand why it’s vital, let’s take a look at why this matters.

      There have been two main ways we’ve discovered the potentially hazardous asteroid orbiting Earth to date. One has been through the use of ground-based surveys, and in particular through large-area or even all-sky surveys that examine as much of the sky as they can over and over again. If there’s an object that changes in its properties at all — in either brightness or position or both — these surveys will detect whatever differences arise from one moment to the next.

      Telescopes that specialize in this, such as Pan-STARRS and the Catalina Sky Survey, have been outstanding at finding objects within our Solar System, including many comets and asteroids. Although many of those asteroids have turned out to be potentially hazardous to Earth, these telescopes are severely limited by the faintness of the objects they can observe. Even though they’re substantial in size, they observe each area of sky for a short period of time, which means they can only identify the largest and/or closest objects. This has led to thousands upon thousands of discoveries, but many large bodies capable of causing catastrophic devastation to Earth remain undiscovered.

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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