NASA emails reveal how agency didn't see large, 'sneaky' near-miss asteroid

Internal emails from NASA reveal how experts didn’t detect a football-field-sized asteroid until it was about to narrowly miss Earth this summer.

In emails obtained by BuzzFeed News via a Freedom of Information Act request, NASA officials asked each other how the asteroid, named “2019 OK,” had escaped detection until an observatory in Brazil reported it on July 24 — the same day it passed our planet.

In the email chain, Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, posed two questions: First, “why was 2019 OK not discovered by one of the major NASA surveys?” and second, if the Brazilian observatory hadn’t caught the asteroid, “is it possible it could have escaped discovery completely?”

“BTW, all, just for context, it appears that 2019 OK is by far the largest asteroid [to] pass this close to Earth in the last century!” reads one subsequent email from Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson.

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Images from recently visited asteroids
In this image released on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft shows its landing area on an asteroid to collect samples. The JAXA performed a series of operations for the second touchdown of Asteroid Explorer "Hayabusa2" on the Ryugu asteroid and the collection of its soil samples. (JAXA via AP)
In this image taken and released on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft shows its landing area on an asteroid to collect samples. The JAXA performed a series of operations for the second touchdown of Asteroid Explorer "Hayabusa2" on the Ryugu asteroid and the collection of its soil samples. (JAXA via AP)
In this image taken and released on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft lands on an asteroid to collect samples. The JAXA performed a series of operations for the second touchdown of Asteroid Explorer "Hayabusa2" on the Ryugu asteroid and the collection of its soil samples. (JAXA via AP)
This image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows the asteroid Ryugu Friday, April 5, 2019. Japan's space agency JAXA said its Hayabusa2 spacecraft released an explosive onto the asteroid to make a crater on its surface and collect underground samples to find possible clues to the origin of the solar system. Friday's mission is the riskiest for Hayabusa2, as it has to immediately get away so it won't get hit by flying shards from the blast. (JAXA via AP)
This combination of Dec. 2, 2018 photos made available by NASA shows a set of stereoscopic images of a large, 170-foot (52-meter) boulder that juts from asteroid Bennu's southern hemisphere and the rocky slopes that surround it. The 3D images were captured by the Osiris-Rex spacecraft. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona via AP)
FILE - This file mosaic image composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2, 2018, and provided by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft entered orbit Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, around the asteroid Bennu, 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) from Earth. It’s the smallest celestial body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. Bennu is just 1,600 feet (500 meters) across. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona via AP, File)
This Oct. 26, 2018, image captured by Rover-1A, and provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, shows the surface of asteroid Ryugu. Japan's space agency JAXA said Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, more than 200 photos taken by two small rovers on the asteroid show no signs of a smooth area for the planned touchdown of a spacecraft early next year. (JAXA via AP)
This Nov. 16, 2018, image provide by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu. After a two-year chase, a NASA spacecraft has arrived at the ancient asteroid Bennu, its first visitor in billions of years. The robotic explorer Osiris-Rex pulled within 12 miles (19 kilometers) of the diamond-shaped space rock Monday, Dec. 3. The image, which was taken by the PolyCam camera, shows Bennu at 300 pixels and has been stretched to increase contrast between highlights and shadows. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona via AP)
FILE - This Sept. 23, 2018 file image captured by Rover-1B, and provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows the surface of asteroid Ryugu. Japan’s space agency is delaying a spacecraft touchdown on an asteroid as scientists need more time to find a safe landing site on the extremely rocky surface. (JAXA via AP, File)
This Sept. 21, 2018 image taken at an altitude of about 64 meter by Hayabusa2 and provided Sept. 27 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows the surface of asteroid Ryugu. New photos taken on the surface of an asteroid show that it is (drumroll, please) ... rocky. It may be no surprise, but Japan space agency scientists and engineers are nonetheless thrilled by the images being sent to Earth by two jumping robotic rovers that they dropped onto an asteroid about 280 million kilometers (170 million miles) away. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency posted the latest photos on its website late Thursday, Sept. 27. (JAXA, The University of Tokyo and partner institutions via AP)
This computer graphic image provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows two drum-shaped and solar-powered Minerva-II-1 rovers on an asteroid. Japanese unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 released two small Minerva-II-1 rovers on the asteroid Ryugu on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in a research effort that may provide clues to the origin of the solar system. JAXA said confirmation of the rovers' touchdown has to wait until it receives data from them on Saturday. (JAXA via AP)
FILE - This computer graphics image provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows an asteroid and asteroid explorer Hayabusa2. The Japanese unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 released two small Minerva-II-1 rovers on the asteroid Ryugu on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in a research effort that may provide clues to the origin of the solar system. JAXA said confirmation of the rovers' touchdown has to wait until it receives data from them on Saturday. (JAXA via AP)
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NASA experts determined that a combination of factors ultimately caused the agency to miss it, including the position of the moon, bad weather and the slow-moving nature of the asteroid.

“So, was this just a particularly sneaky asteroid?” Chodas asked. “I wonder how many times this has happened without the asteroid being discovered at all.”

Johnson said in one email that this miss was an “interesting story on the limitations of our current survey network.”

The incident highlights Congress’ long-running failure to fund reliable equipment to monitor “potentially hazardous” asteroids, BuzzFeed reported.

NASA experts also expressed frustration over the way Australian scientists and the media sensationalized the asteroid, describing it as a “city killer” to the Sydney Morning Herald

“It might be helpful to ask them to think before they speak (of nuclear explosions and such..),” reads one email from a redacted sender.

“All the rest - including WaPo ― is simply repetition... This story also says to me that we have to keep up our good work of calming down asteroid rhetoric. City-killers, nukes, etc.”

According to NASA’s informational statement about OK 2019 from last month, had the asteroid hit Earth, it would have created “localized devastation to an area roughly 50 miles across.” If it had fallen in the ocean, it would have been a “bad day for any sailing vessels in the vicinity,” but it’s doubtful it would have caused a tsunami.

The chances of an asteroid of this size hitting Earth is “only on the order of once every several thousand years,” Chodas said.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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