Last Days? How NASA Monitors Space For Events That Could End the World

Las Vegas Astronomical Society vice president of special events Keith Caceres tracks an asteroid on his computer in 2014. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

About 17,000 undetected asteroids that are large enough to be a concern to NASA may be lurking near Earth, according to a recent report. That doesn't mean it's time to panic or start declaring that the world will end on Sunday (or any other day this year) because some non-existent planet is rapidly approaching Earth, but it does illustrate how seriously federal agencies and international organizations take real threats like asteroids and space weather.

Space weather does more than just create pretty auroras. It can also have real consequences for our power grids, communication and navigation satellites.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is one of the agencies that tracks and predicts space weather, particularly at its Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

"It is very much like a normal weather forecast office," said NOAA scientist Joe Kunches in a 2014 video released by the agency. "As conditions develop, we put out alerts, warnings and watches to our customers so they can take action."

Major geomagnetic storms—the kind that would disrupt radio communication and satellite systems—occur an average of four times every 11 years, according to NOAA's scale.

In 2014, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for better preparations for space weather emergencies. Some scientists have also suggested being a bit more proactive and creating a magnetic shield around the Earth; humanity may have already created a different kind of barrier by accident.

The case for tracking asteroids seems more obvious; when the right asteroid lands in the wrong place, the results can be catastrophic. (That said, NASA isn't expecting any asteroid to hit Earth any time soon.)

US astronaut Russell L Schweickart speaks on a UN report concerning 'Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response', during a press conference at the Vienna International Centre, Vienna, on November 25, 2008. SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

Tracking asteroids is a global project. NASA is one of the signatories to the International Asteroid Warning Network, an organization also sanctioned by the United Nations. The network's mission, according to its website, is "to establish a worldwide effort to detect, track, and physically characterize near-Earth objects to determine those that are potential impact threats to Earth." The IAWN ran a test of its member organizations' abilities to work together on October 12, when an asteroid passed about 27,000 miles above Earth. That test went fine, NASA said.

If there were to be a dangerous asteroid headed toward Earth, and if we were able to spot it ahead of time, doing something about it would be nice. Unfortunately, that's not possible yet. But NASA and other space agencies are still working on a few solutions to that problem—one of which is batting it out of the way.