MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109. TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Jane Platt (818) 354-0880
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 12, 2000
ASTEROID POPULATION COUNT SLASHED
NASA scientists taking a census of large asteroids in our
solar system neighborhood have cut their estimate in half.
The revised calculation comes from data gathered by NASA's
Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking System (NEAT) and published in the
January 13 issue of the journal Nature.
"Until now, scientists thought the population of large,
near-Earth asteroids was between 1,000 and 2,000, but we've
downgraded that figure significantly," said Dr. David Rabinowitz,
of Yale University, New Haven, CT, lead author of the article and
NEAT co-investigator. "We now believe there are between 500 and
1,000 near-Earth asteroids larger than one kilometer (about 0.6
miles) in diameter."
"This newer estimate was made possible by the computerized
technology of the NEAT camera," Rabinowitz said. The NASA-funded
system began tracking near-Earth asteroids and comets in 1995
with a charge-coupled device camera mounted on a 1-meter (39-
inch) Air Force telescope atop Mount Haleakala on Maui, HI.
The new figures may represent good news in the quest to
achieve NASA's stated goal of finding 90-percent of all large,
near-Earth asteroids by 2010, according to NEAT project manager
Dr. Steven Pravdo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
CA, a co-author of the Nature article.
"Right now we know of 322 large, near-Earth asteroids,"
Pravdo said. "That was a fairly small fraction of the 2,000
asteroids in our previous estimate. With our new calculations of
between 500 and 1,000 such objects, this 322 figure represents a
While stressing that we must learn more about potential
hazards from asteroids, Rabinowitz said, "None of the asteroids
we've observed will hit Earth anytime in the near future."
"This new analysis reduces by half the estimated number of
these potential hazards to Earth," Pravdo said.
"In the past, we relied on humans poring over photographic
plates of the nighttime sky," Rabinowitz said. "The problem was,
they didn't know how many asteroids they were missing, because
they couldn't see faint objects. People's eyes also became tired
and teary and they overlooked some objects. Machines don't get
"With this computerized technology, we can find asteroids
more easily and count them more accurately," Pravdo said. "It's
important to know your observational limits, and with that
information, we can develop models for what we are not able to
see. This makes our estimates even more accurate."
Additional co-authors on the Nature article are Eleanor
Helin of JPL, NEAT principal investigator, and Kenneth Lawrence,
also of JPL. Helin was also principal investigator of the
Palomar Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey, a photographic search
program, conducted for almost 25 years until it was discontinued
and replaced by NEAT, the electronic detection program, in 1995.
Her efforts were key to the organization of the NEAT program.
Data gathered by the asteroid tracking system are processed
at Haleakala, and then undergo post-processing and analysis at
JPL. This latest asteroid estimate is based on data collected
between 1995 and 1998.
The asteroid tracking system has been on hiatus for the past
year, but plans are in the works to re-activate the system in
February using an upgraded 1.2-meter (48-inch) Air Force
telescope on Haleakala. In addition, later this year, NEAT
scientists will begin using the 1.2-meter (48-inch) Oschin
telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, CA.
Additional information on the NEAT project is available at
http://neat.jpl.nasa.gov . Information on near-Earth objects is
available at http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov .
The Near Earth Asteroid Tracking System is managed for
NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. by JPL, a
division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena,