Post-Chelyabinsk Risk Assessment for Near Earth Objects (NEOs)

Friday, 19 December 2014
Mark Boslough, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM, United States and Alan W Harris, MoreData!, La Cañada, CA, United States
The widely-accepted NEO risk assessments published in the 1990s concluded that the largest asteroids (> 1 km) dominated the hazard. Even though large NEOs represent only a tiny fraction of the population because of a power-law size distribution, the potential for global catastrophe means that the contribution from these low-probability, high-consequence events is large. This conclusion led to the Spaceguard survey, which has now catalogued about 90% of these objects, none of which is on a collision course. The survey has reduced the assessed risk from this size range by more than an order of magnitude because completion is highest for the largest and most dangerous. The relative risk from objects tens of meters in diameter is therefore increasing.

The absolute assessed risk from airbursts caused by objects of this size is also higher for two reasons. First, they may be more frequent than previously thought because of an underestimated population. Second, they are significantly more damaging than assumed in the original assessment because (in most cases) they more efficiently couple energy to the surface than nuclear explosions. Last year’s half-megaton airburst over Chelyabinsk, Russia, appears to challenge the notion that such events are extremely rare—especially when also considering the 1908 Tunguska event along with decades of infrasound bolide data showing higher-than-expected numbers of large airbursts.

We will present a new analysis of the risk based on updated estimates for the population of undiscovered NEOs, taking into account the enhanced damage potential of collisional airbursts. Merging the survey population estimates with the bolide frequency estimates suggests a population of tens-of-meters sized bodies that may be a factor of three or so greater than estimated from surveys alone. Uncertainty in the population of airburst-class NEOs remains quite large, and can only be unambiguously reduced by expanded surveys focused on objects in the tens-of-meters size range.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC04-94AL85000.