Scientists Lost Track of More Than 900 Near-Earth Asteroids, Report Reveals

If there’s one thing you don’t want to lose track of, it’s a near-Earth asteroid—a space rock that is uncomfortably close to our little blue planet. However, a new paper explained that scientists have done just that to more than 900 of these asteroids. Thankfully, these rocks have a low chance of hitting Earth and causing any damage.

A detailed report released in early May by astronomers from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts stated that about 11 percent of the more than 17,000 potential near-Earth asteroid candidates identified by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center from 2013 to 2016 were lost, New Scientist reported. This means that after their initial sighting, the asteroids’ coordinates were lost, making the objects unable to be followed up on or confirmed.

05_15_meteor A meteor passes through the night sky in Belarus. Scientists lost track of these near-Earth asteroids. Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

Potential near-Earth asteroids are asteroids that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit, Space.com reported. There are tens of millions of space rocks that fit this category, but it's the larger ones that astronomers are most concerned with. In 2005, the U.S. government asked NASA to spot 90 percent of these asteroids that were 460 feet or larger, as these are the space rocks that could potentially cause damage if they came into contact with Earth.

Related: 2010 WC9: Asteroid The Size Of The Statue Of Liberty Set To Skim Past Earth

According to the new report, the main reason that 11 percent of the potential near-Earth asteroids were lost was that the newly discovered near-Earth asteroid candidates were submitted for confirmation too late for them to be corroborated by a secondary source

“We need to act fast,” Peter Vereš at the Minor Planet Center told New Scientist. “Tomorrow, that object could be on the other side of the sky, and nobody really knows where it will be.”

What's more, bad weather and space objects that move too fast can also be underlying causes for these asteroids going unrecorded.

Related: Sneaky Asteroid Skimmed Past Earth Just Hours After Detection

Unfortunately, being lost means that we don’t know how close the asteroids may be to Earth now or how close they could get in the future. However, Vereš told New Scientist that regardless of how close they get he doubts they’d be very large.  

“We believe that the largest ones – planetary killers larger than one kilometer – those are basically all found,” said Vereš.

Although the lost asteroids are likely harmless, that doesn’t mean we’ve found all the potentially dangerous asteroids out there. The NASA mission created to identify these large near-Earth objects aimed to have this feat completely by 2020. However, the agency likely won’t meet this deadline, at least not without some serious robotic help.

Even if a large undetected asteroid did get too close, NASA has a plan. Although not as austere as Bruce Willis blowing up an asteroid in 1998's Armageddon, NASA’s asteroid deflection mission is a form of planetary defense that aims to strike an impending asteroid in order to change its course.

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