The US Space Agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA, says it has new software that will enable the Center for the Study of Near Earth Objects (CNEOS) to better assess potential threats from asteroids that may approach Earth.
In a press release on Monday, NASA astronomers said they have updated their collision software, called Sentry, with its new generation Sentry-II to better estimate the likelihood of a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) collision.
NASA said that nearly 28,000 NEAs have been discovered to date with survey telescopes that continuously scan the sky, making about 3,000 new discoveries a year. But with better technology and new, larger telescopes, that number is expected to multiply rapidly, requiring a software update.
Contrary to what some might think, asteroids are extremely predictable celestial bodies that obey the laws of physics and follow known orbital trajectories around the Sun, NASA scientists say. Sometimes, when these paths bring these objects closer to the future position of the Earth in space, the uncertainty in the path of the asteroids increases the likelihood of a collision with the Earth.
Navigation engineer Javier Roa Vicens, who led the development of the Sentry-II while at JPL and recently moved to SpaceX, said the first generation of the Sentry was “very capable.” In less than an hour, he said, it could give the likelihood of a collision with a newly discovered asteroid over the next 100 years in what he called an “incredible feat.”
But JPL scientists say the Sentry-II software can quickly calculate collision probabilities for all known NEAs, including some special cases not captured by the original Sentry. For example, his calculations take into account how solar heat and the Earth’s own gravity affect the trajectory of asteroids.
Scientists say that by systematically calculating the probabilities of collisions in this new way, the collision monitoring system will become more reliable, allowing NASA to confidently estimate all potential collisions with a probability of only a few in 10 million.
Since 2002, JPL-operated CNEOS at its Southern California headquarters has calculated every known NEA orbit to improve collision hazard assessments in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.