NASA is currently working on a project that can detect near-Earth objects from hitting the planet. However, scientists are getting impatient.
The project is an infrared space telescope called Near-Earth Object Camera. Its purpose is simple: identify all kinds of astronomical bodies like asteroids whose orbits around the sun could pass close to Earth and potentially collide with the planet.
According to scientists, such an event could be deadly to civilization as an asteroid attack could possibly destroy the whole planet. That is what NEOCam is trying to prevent.
A major meteoric impact is going to happen sooner or later, that's why scientists want to be better prepared.
"The question is, when is the next one going to happen on a human time scale as well as a geological time scale?" said Amy Mainzer, a scientist at CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the principal investigator for the NEOCam project.
Mainzer has been working on NEOCam for over 14 years. She first proposed the project back in 2005.
The US Congress passed a law back in 2005 requiring NASA to find 90 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters in diameter. However, the deadline is in 2020.
"I don't lose sleep over the risk of an undiscovered asteroid impacting the Earth because the chances are small, but they are not zero," said MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel, who is not part of the NEOCam team.
"We have the capability, the adult responsibility, to simply know what's out there. And NEOCam is basically ready to go."
NASA needs more funding to launch NEOCam and they are running out of time. The space agency is currently waiting for the National Academy of Sciences to wrap up a study of the best methods to spot near-Earth objects, which is expected sometime this spring. That is when the agency is going to make a decision on NEOCam.
Another space probe called IMAP is scheduled to launch in 2024 to to study solar wind and its rocket has room for one more payload. According to researchers, that is the best time launch NEOCam, as the IMAP is also headed to an orbit most ideal for the infrared telescope.
NEOCam was given an additional year of funding back in 2017.