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NASA revises down giant asteroid threat

Updated September 30, 2011 16:50:13

NASA says there are fewer giant asteroids in space than once thought and most of the biggest near-Earth asteroids have been found, leaving little threat of one smashing into the planet.

The latest data from the US space agency's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE telescope, shows 93 per cent of asteroids one kilometre and larger have been found.

Scientists used to think there were about 1,000 of them, but they have revised that number down to 981, of which 911 have been located and are being tracked.

"The risk of a really large asteroid impacting the Earth before we could find and warn of it has been substantially reduced," said Tim Spahr, the director of the Minor Planet Centre at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Where the challenge remains is with mid-sized near-Earth asteroids that are 100 metres and larger.

The WISE data shows there are about 19,500 - not 35,000 as previous data suggested - and that only 5,200 of these are being tracked.

That leaves nearly 15,000 yet to be found.

A near-Earth asteroid is defined as a space rock that orbits within 195 million kilometres of the sun into Earth's orbital vicinity.

Amy Mainzer, the lead author of the latest research which appears in the Astrophysical Journal, said WISE has given astronomers a better sense of what is out there, and what is not.

"It's like a population census, where you poll a small group of people to draw conclusions about the entire country," she said.

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