But some former astronauts want to give the world a fighting chance.
They’re hopeful Friday’s cosmic coincidence — Earth’s close brush with a 150-foot asteroid, hours after the 49-foot meteor struck in Russia — will draw attention to the dangers lurking in outer space and lead to action, such as better detection and tracking of asteroids.
“After today, a lot of people will be paying attention,” said Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1969, helped establish the planet-protecting B612 Foundation and has been warning NASA for years to put more muscle and money into a heightened asteroid alert.
Earth is menaced all the time by meteors, which are chunks of asteroids or comets that enter Earth’s atmosphere. But many if not most of them are simply too small to detect from afar with the tools now available to astronomers.
The meteor that shattered over the Ural Mountains was estimated to be 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. It blew out thousands of windows and left more than 1,000 people injured in Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million. And yet no one saw it coming; it was about the size of a bus.
“This is a tiny asteroid,” said astronomer Paul Chodas, who works in NASA’s Near-Earth Object program in Pasadena, Calif. “It would be very faint and difficult to detect — not impossible, but difficult.”
As for the three-times-longer asteroid that hurtled by Earth later in the day Friday, passing closer to the planet than some communications satellites, astronomers in Spain did not even discover it until a year ago. That would have been too late for pre-emptive action — such as the launch of a deflecting spacecraft — if it had been on a collision course with Earth.
Asteroid 2012 DA14, as it is known, passed harmlessly within 17,150 miles of Earth, zooming by at 17,400 mph, or 5 miles per second.
Scientists believe there are anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million “near-Earth” asteroids comparable in size to DA14 or bigger out there. But less than 1 percent have actually been spotted. Astronomers have catalogued only 9,600 of them, of which nearly 1,300 are bigger than 0.6 miles.