Asteroid’s Sudden Flyby Shows Blind Spot in Planetary Threat Detection

The discovery of an asteroid the size of a small shipping truck mere days before it passed Earth on Thursday, albeit one that posed no threat to humans, highlights a blind spot in our ability to predict those that could actually cause damage, astronomers say.

NASA for years has prioritized detecting asteroids much bigger and more existentially threatening than 2023 BU, the small space rock that streaked by 2,200 miles from the Earth’s surface, closer than some satellites. If bound for Earth, it would have been pulverized in the atmosphere, with only small fragments possibly reaching land.

But 2023 BU sits on the smaller end of a size group, asteroids 5-to-50 meters in diameter, that also includes those as big as an Olympic swimming pool. Objects that size are difficult to detect until they wander much closer to Earth, complicating any efforts to brace for one that could impact a populated area.

The probability of an Earth impact by a space rock, called a meteor when it enters the atmosphere, of that size range is fairly low, scaling according to the asteroid’s size: a 5-meter rock is estimated to target Earth once a year, and a 50-meter rock once every thousand years, according to NASA.

But with current capabilities, astronomers can’t see when such a rock targets Earth until days prior.

“We don’t know where most of the asteroids are that can cause local to regional devastation,” said Terik Daly, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The roughly 20-meter meteor that exploded in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia is a once-every-100-years event, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It created a shockwave that shattered tens of thousands of windows and caused $33 million in damage, and no one saw it coming before it entered Earth’s atmosphere.

Some astronomers consider relying only on statistical probabilities and estimates of asteroid populations an unnecessary risk, when improvements could be made to NASA’s ability to detect them.

“How many natural hazards are there that we could actually do something about and prevent for a billion dollars? There’s not many,” said Daly, whose work focuses on defending Earth from hazardous asteroids.

Avoiding a really bad day

One major upgrade to NASA’s detection arsenal will be NEO Surveyor, a $1.2 billion telescope under development that will launch nearly a million miles from Earth and surveil a wide field of asteroids. It promises a significant advantage over today’s ground-based telescopes that are hindered by daytime light and Earth’s atmosphere. 

That new telescope will help NASA meet a goal assigned by Congress in 2005: detect 90% of the total expected amount of asteroids bigger than 140 meters, or those big enough to destroy anything from a region to an entire continent.

“With Surveyor, we’re really focusing on finding the one asteroid that could cause a really bad day for a lot of people,” said Amy Mainzer, NEO Surveyor principal investigator. “But we’re also tasked with getting good statistics on the smaller objects, down to about the size of the Chelyabinsk object.”

NASA has fallen years behind on its congressional goal, which was ordered for completion by 2020. The agency proposed last year to cut the telescope’s 2023 budget by three quarters and a two-year launch delay to 2028 “to support higher-priority missions” elsewhere in NASA’s science portfolio.

Asteroid detection gained greater importance last year after NASA slammed a refrigerator-sized spacecraft into an asteroid to test its ability to knock a potentially hazardous space rock off a collision course with Earth.

The successful demonstration, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), affirmed for the first time a method of planetary defense.

“NEO Surveyor is of the utmost importance, especially now that we know from DART that we really can do something about it,” Daly said.

“So by golly, we gotta find these asteroids.”


New Zealand Roiled by Flash Floods, Landslides for Third Day

Heavy rainfall hit New Zealand’s north island again on Sunday, causing landslides, flash floods and knocking out roads, with the death toll rising to four after a person who had been missing was confirmed dead.

Battered by rain since Friday, Auckland — New Zealand’s largest city of 1.6 million people — remained under a state of emergency. The nation’s weather forecaster, MetService, warned of severe weather on Sunday and Monday for the north island. Intense rainfall could also cause surface and flash flooding, it said.

The focus of the emergency has since moved south, with Waitomo District, about 220 km from Auckland, declaring a state of emergency late on Saturday.

Police confirmed that a man missing after being swept away on Friday in Onewhero, a rural village about 70 km south of Auckland, had died.

“The most horrific part of it is that we’ve lost lives,” Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni told reporters in Auckland.

The culprit: Climate change

Climate change is causing episodes of heavy rainfall to become more common and more intense in New Zealand, though the impact varies by region. Climate Change Minister James Shaw noted the link to climate change on Saturday when he tweeted his support for those affected by flooding.

On Sunday, police said they were assisting with traffic management and road closures after heavy rainfall “caused numerous slips, flooding and damage to roads.”

In nearby Bay of Plenty there was also “widespread flooding,” police said, as well as a landslide that had knocked down a house and was threatening neighboring properties.

Thousands of properties remained without power, while hundreds were without water, authorities said on Sunday.

Airline back in service Sunday

But Air New Zealand said the airline’s international flights in and out of Auckland would resume starting Sunday noon, local time (2300 GMT on Saturday).

On Saturday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, in office less than a week, flew by helicopter over Auckland before touring flood-hit homes. He described the flood impact in the city as “unprecedented” in recent memory.

People made more than 2,000 calls for assistance and 70 evacuations around Auckland because of the flooding, the New Zealand Herald reported Saturday.


Children Denied Same Access to Treatment for HIV/AIDS as Adults

The U.N.’s main AIDS program says thousands of children are dying from HIV/AIDS because, unlike adults, they do not receive treatment for the deadly disease.

HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence. People infected with the disease can live a normal lifespan, provided they receive treatment and care. Unfortunately, there is a glaring disparity between the way children and adults with HIV/AIDS are treated.

UNAIDS spokeswoman Charlotte Sector says 76 percent of adults have access to treatment but only half of children living with HIV are receiving lifesaving treatment. She says children account for 15 percent of all AIDS deaths, despite making up only four percent of all people living with the disease.

“Last year alone 160,000 children were infected with HIV,” Sector said. “So, what is happening is that 12 countries are coming together in Africa because six countries in sub-Saharan Africa represent 50 percent of those new infections.”

She says a global alliance led by UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF has formed to close the huge gap. She says 12 African countries have joined the alliance. Sector says health ministers from eight countries will launch the initiative next week in Tanzania.

“So, not only is it getting children on treatment, but it is mostly trying to stop vertical transmission,” Sector said. “Now what is vertical transmission? It is the mother passing on HIV during pregnancy, during delivery or during breast feeding because most of those transmissions are taking place during breastfeeding.”

Spector says efforts to contain the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa mainly have been centered on getting adults on treatment, as the main transmitters of the virus. In the process, however, she says the needs of children have been overlooked.

“So, what happens is suddenly there is a realization that we have forgotten all these children, and there is a forgotten generation of children,” Sector said. “So now, there has been a scramble to kind of close that faucet, if I may say, of getting to the children before they are even born or after they are born.”

The global alliance will run for the next eight years until 2030. During that period, it aims to close the treatment gap for pregnant and breastfeeding adolescent girls and women living with HIV, prevent and detect new HIV infections, provide access to testing and treatment, and end the social barriers that hinder access to services.


India’s First Nasal COVID-19 Vaccine Launched

This week India launched its first nasal COVID-19 vaccine, four months after it received approval for its restricted emergency use among adults in the country.

The mucosal vaccine, made by India’s leading vaccine maker, Bharat Biotech, is based on technology licensed from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in the U.S.

It is administered in the form of drops in the nose and stimulates an immune response in the mucous membranes of the tissues lining the nasal cavity, upper airways and lungs.

Originally called BBV154 and now sold by Bharat Biotech as iNCOVACC, the nasal vaccine was launched by Indian Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Thursday, Republic Day, a national holiday in the country.

“Proud to launch iNCOVACC, the world’s 1st intranasal vaccine for COVID … A mighty display of India’s research and innovation prowess under PM Narendra Modi Ji’s leadership. Congratulations to Bharat Biotech for this feat!” Mandaviya posted on Twitter.

He called the vaccine a “historic achievement & a testimony to the innovative zeal” of India’s scientists.

In a statement, Bharat Biotech said that iNCOVACC, the “world’s first intranasal COVID vaccine for primary series and heterologous booster” is now available on CoWIN, India’s vaccine portal that digitally tracks people’s vaccination status.

It will cost 800 rupees ($9.80) in private hospitals and 325 rupees ($4) in government hospitals. A heterologous booster is the vaccine dose for people who have already received two doses of Covishield or Covaxin, the two common Indian COVID vaccines.

“iNCOVACC is a cost-effective COVID vaccine which does not require syringes, needles, alcohol wipes, bandage, etc., saving costs related to procurement, distribution, storage, and biomedical waste disposal, that is routinely required for injectable vaccines,” the statement said.

“Amid growing COVID-19 cases and emerging variants of the highly transmissible virus, a booster dose of the vaccine becomes imperative. As [a] needleless vaccination, Bharat Biotech’s iNCOVACC will be the world’s first such booster dose … The nasal delivery system has been designed and developed to be cost-effective in low- and middle-income countries,” the statement added.

Dr. Krishna Ella, chairman of Bharat Biotech, told ANI news agency that iNCOVACC was “easy to deliver” since no syringe is required and that it resulted in a broader immune response as compared with injectable COVID vaccines.

In a Sept. 7 news release, the Washington University School of Medicine said that since the adenoviral nasal vaccine — which is known as iNCOVACC in India — is delivered via the nose, right where the virus enters the body, it has the “potential to block infection and break the cycle of transmission, as well as prevent lung damage.”

“The nasal delivery system was designed and developed to be cost-effective, a feature that is especially important in low- and middle-income countries, and the vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator. Receiving the vaccine requires only a brief inhalation, a major plus to the many people who prefer to avoid needles,” the statement said.

Dr. Michael S. Diamond, a professor of molecular microbiology, pathology & immunology, and a co-inventor of the nasal vaccine technology, was quoted in the news release as saying: “Nasal vaccines induce the type of protective immunity that we think will prevent or limit infection and also curb pandemic transmission of this virus.”

On Friday, Diamond told VOA that “it is exciting” to see the deployment of iNCOVACC in India as a nasally delivered vaccine and booster.

“The continued waves of COVID-19 infection necessitate new strategies to overcome transmission. By generating immunity in the upper respiratory tract at the portal of entry of the virus, this vaccine has the potential to better limit [the] spread of the virus than other approaches,” Diamond said.


Green Comet Zooming Our Way; Last Visited 50,000 Years Ago

A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years. 

The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) of Earth on Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years. 

Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By February 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark. 

Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse. 

Bigger, brighter, closer

While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas. 

Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF). 

On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 207,000 kph (128,500 mph). Its nucleus is thought to be about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) across, with its tails extending millions of kilometers (miles). 

The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid- to late 1990s. 

But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email. 

Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations, putting the comet’s last swing through the solar system’s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. 

When it will return, though, is tougher to judge. 

Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun. 

“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said. 

A moving time capsule

The comet — a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago — came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud, well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star. 

While this comet originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added. 

Don’t fret if you miss it. 

“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.” 


CDC Says Omicron Subvariant XBB.1.5 Accounts for 61.3% of US COVID Cases

The Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 has likely become the dominant variant in the United States, accounting for 61.3% of COVID cases in the week ended January 28, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed on Friday.

The subvariant accounted for 49.5% of cases in the week ended January 21, according to estimates from the CDC.

XBB.1.5, which is currently the most transmissible variant, is an offshoot of XBB, first detected in October.

The now-dominant XBB-related subvariants are derived from the BA.2 version of Omicron.

An analysis from CDC showed on Wednesday that updated COVID-19 boosters from Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE and Moderna helped prevent symptomatic infections against the new XBB-related subvariants.


US FDA Proposes Eased Restrictions on Blood Donations from Gay, Bisexual Men

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed revisions to its guidelines to make it easier for gay and bisexual men to donate blood, eliminating a three-month abstinence period before donations.

The restrictions were implemented years ago to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

In a release posted to the agency’s website, the FDA said under the draft proposals, all donors — regardless of sexual orientation — would be given a questionnaire regarding new partners, sexual history, and certain types of sexual activities.

Any prospective donors who do not report having new or multiple sexual partners and have not engaged in certain practices, such as anal sex, in the previous three months, may be eligible to donate, provided all other eligibility criteria are met.

The proposed new guidelines would allow gay and bisexual men in monogamous, long-term relationships to more easily give blood.

The FDA said the draft proposals were developed after reviewing available information, including data from Britain and Canada, countries with similar HIV epidemiology that have implemented the “gender-inclusive, individual risk-based approach for assessing donor eligibility.”

In the statement, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said, “Maintaining a safe and adequate supply of blood and blood products in the U.S. is paramount for the FDA,” and these proposals will allow the agency to do so.

Under the plan, the donor deferral time periods would stay in place for other HIV risk factors, including for those who have exchanged sex for money or drugs, or have a history of non-prescription injection drug use. 

Any individual who has ever had a positive test for HIV or who has taken any medication to treat HIV infection would continue to be deferred permanently.

The proposed guideline changes released Friday will be open for public comment for 60 days. The agency will then review and consider all comments before finalizing the changes.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.  


US Moves to Protect Minnesota Wilderness from Planned Mine

The Biden administration moved Thursday to protect northeastern Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a copper-nickel project.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order closing more than 900 square kilometers of the Superior National Forest in the Rainy River Watershed around the town of Ely, to mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years, the longest period the department can sequester the land without congressional approval.

The order is “subject to existing valid rights,” but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project. Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit in August to try to reclaim those rights, and reaffirmed Tuesday that it’s not giving up despite its latest setback.

“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”

Project’s critics praise decision

Critics of the project hailed the decision as a massive victory and called for permanent protection for the wilderness. But supporters of Twin Metals said the order runs counter to the administration’s stated goal of increasing domestic supplies of metals critical to the clean energy economy.

The proposed underground mine would be built southeast of Ely, near Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters. The project has been battered by shifting political winds. The Obama administration, in its final weeks, chose not to renew the two leases, which had dated back more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases. But the Biden administration canceled the leases last January after the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 relaunched the review and public engagement process for the 20-year mining moratorium.

While the Biden administration last year committed itself to expanding domestic sources of critical minerals and metals needed for electric vehicles and renewable energy, it made clear Thursday that it considers Boundary Waters to be a unique area worthy of special protections. A day ago, the administration said it would reinstate restrictions on roadbuilding and logging in the country’s largest national forest, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

‘An attack on our way of life’

Twin Metals said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” over the moratorium.

“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the company said in a statement. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”

Twin Metals says it can mine safely without generating acid mine drainage that the Biden administration and environmentalists say makes the $1.7 billion project an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. And it says the mine would create more than 750 high-wage mining jobs plus 1,500 spinoff jobs in the region.

Republican U.S. Representative Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, condemned the decision as “an attack on our way of life” that will benefit only foreign suppliers such as China that have fewer labor and environmental protections.

“America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs,” he said in a statement.

Democratic U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, who represents the St. Paul area, applauded the order, yet warned in a statement that a future administration could reverse the decision.

The order does not affect two other proposed copper-nickel projects in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes and the Talon Metals mine near Tamarack — which lie in different watersheds.


Small Asteroid to Pass Near Earth Thursday

The U.S. space agency NASA says a small asteroid will pass very close to Earth Thursday, just 3,600 kilometers from our planet’s surface, well within the orbit of most geosynchronous satellites.
 

In a release on its website, NASA says the object, known as 2023 BU, poses no threat to the Earth. The agency says even if it entered the atmosphere it would turn into a fireball and largely disintegrate harmlessly, with some bigger debris potentially reaching the surface as small meteorites.

 

NASA says the object – just 3.5 to 8.5 meters across – represents one of the closest passes by a near-Earth object ever recorded. It is expected to pass over the southern tip of South America at 7:27 p.m. EST (12:27 a.m. GMT). Experts say it would not be visible without a powerful telescope.

 

The agency said the asteroid was discovered and reported Saturday by amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, who operates an observatory in Nauchnyi, Crimea.

 

NASA says additional observations were reported to the Minor Planet Center, or MPC, – the internationally recognized authenticator of the position of small celestial bodies. The MPC operates from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts under the authority of the International Astronomical Union.

 

The data was automatically posted on the Near-Earth Object Confirmation Page website. Within three days, several observatories around the world had made dozens of observations, helping astronomers better refine 2023 BU’s orbit.

 

The Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California analyzed the data from the MPC’s confirmation page and predicted the near miss. CNEOS calculates every known near-Earth asteroid orbit to provide assessments on potential impact hazards in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

 

JPL navigation engineer Davide Farnocchia said the CNEOS Scout impact hazard assessment system ruled out any threat of impact by the asteroid. But he said, despite very few observations, it was able to predict that the asteroid would make “an extraordinarily close approach with Earth.”  

 

“In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

 

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press


Asteroid on Path for Close Call With Earth

An asteroid the size of a delivery truck will whip past Earth on Thursday night, one of the closest such encounters ever recorded.

NASA said it will be a near miss with no chance of the asteroid hitting Earth.

NASA said Wednesday that the newly discovered asteroid will zoom 3,600 kilometers above the southern tip of South America. That’s 10 times closer than the bevy of communication satellites circling overhead.

The closest approach will occur at 7:27 p.m. EST (9:27 p.m. local.)

Even if the space rock came a lot closer, scientists said most of it would burn up in the atmosphere, with some of the bigger pieces possibly falling as meteorites.

NASA’s impact hazard assessment system, called Scout, quickly ruled out a strike, said its developer, Davide Farnocchia, an engineer at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Despite the very few observations, it was nonetheless able to predict that the asteroid would make an extraordinarily close approach with Earth,” Farnocchia said in a statement. “In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

2023 BU

Discovered Saturday, the asteroid known as 2023 BU is believed to be between 3.5 meters and 8.5 meters feet across. It was first spotted by the same amateur astronomer in Crimea, Gennadiy Borisov, who discovered an interstellar comet in 2019. Within a few days, dozens of observations were made by astronomers around the world, allowing them to refine the asteroid’s orbit.

Earth’s gravity will alter the path of the asteroid once it zips by. Instead of circling the sun every 359 days, the rock will move into an oval orbit lasting 425 days, according to NASA.