See all asteroids near Earth with NASA's new real-time tool

The interactive tool pictures the solar system and various planets within, with orbits indicated, as well as several asteroids and comets that classify as near-Earth objects (NEOs).

Asteroid illustrative (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Asteroid illustrative
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Numerous asteroids and comets orbit through the solar system, some even approaching the Earth - and now, you can see their orbits and locations for yourself, thanks to NASA's new interactive Eyes on Asteroids experience.

The program, available for free and which can work on computers, smartphones and tablets without any download required, is a 3D visualization tool that allows users to explore the various objects in the solar system.

The interactive tool pictures the solar system and various planets within, with orbits indicated, as well as several asteroids and comets that classify as near-Earth objects (NEOs).

Thousands of asteroids are discovered yearly, and scientists make an effort to track their orbit to see if any approach the Earth. This rapid pace of updates can be seen in the tool, which is updated twice a day with the latest data, adding any new objects and orbits to the app.

This is accomplished by gathering data from the Solar System Dynamics database of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA's DART Mission heads for an asteroid, from behind the NEXT–C ion engine (illustrative). (credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)NASA's DART Mission heads for an asteroid, from behind the NEXT–C ion engine (illustrative). (credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)

But it isn't just asteroids themselves that can be seen in the tool. Also present are many NASA missions sent out for NEOs. This includes the OSIRIS -REx mission, the TAG sample collection mission and, most recently, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) Mission, which was recently launched towards the Didymos binary asteroid system to test asteroid deflection.

In layman's terms, punch the asteroid and see if its orbit changes ever so slightly.

But the tool is more than just focusing on asteroids, as it is also informative about the facts surrounding NEOs, including asteroids deemed potentially hazardous, which means they are at least 140 meters in size and who will pass within a minimum of 7.48 million kilometers from Earth's orbital path.

For comparison, the Moon orbits the planet at a distance of around 384,000 kilometers.

Currently, NASA has identified a total of 2,209 different asteroids deemed potentially hazardous, out of the 1,113,527 known asteroids in the entire solar system at the time of writing.

The app also lets users track the five next close asteroid approaches to the Earth, which includes the asteroids' names, estimated sizes, distance from which they will pass by the planet and a live countdown for arrival. Part of the reason for including this was to dissuade public panic over headlines highlighting the danger of these asteroid approaches.

“We were keen to include this feature, as asteroid close approaches often generate a lot of interest,” Jason Craig, technical producer of the Visualization Technology Applications and Development team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which developed Eyes, said in a statement. “The headlines often depict these close approaches as ‘dangerously’ close, but users will see by using Eyes just how distant most of these encounters really are.”

Some of these asteroids are absolutely gigantic. One of them, identified as Vesta, is around 530 kilometers in size. For comparison, that's far larger than the Grand Canyon, five times the width of the English Channel separating the United Kingdom and France.

Others are far smaller, ranging just a few meters in size. These range around the size of a car or bus.

Smaller asteroids less than a meter in size are simply known as meteoroids.

When meteoroids or asteroids just a few meters in size impact the Earth's atmosphere, they become visible but largely disintegrate, sometimes forming into bright fireballs in the process. Anything left upon impact are what are known as meteorites.

The last known significant asteroid impact was on February 15, 2013, when an asteroid exploded in the air above Chelyabinsk, Russia. This asteroid was 17 meters wide, and while it didn't result in any casualties, the shock wave from the explosion shattered windows in six different Russian cities and caused 1,500 people to require medical attention.

 Asteroid (illustrative) (credit: SHUTTERSTOCK) Asteroid (illustrative) (credit: SHUTTERSTOCK)

However, larger and far more destructive ones have happened in the past. The most notable and recent of these was in 1908 above the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Russia, in what has now become known as the Tunguska event.

When the asteroid, estimated to have been around 190 meters in diameter, exploded in the air several kilometers above the area, it produced a massive 12 megaton explosion, causing widespread destruction for thousands of kilometers. That would make it about 800 times more powerful than "Little Boy," the approximately 15-kiloton atomic bomb detonated during World War II over Hiroshima, and 600 times more than "Fat Man," the 20-kiloton one detonated over Nagasaki three days later.

The death toll from the Tunguska event was extremely low, however, with only around three people thought to have been killed in it, due to how remote and sparsely populated the region was. But the damage was still evident, with about 80 million trees completely flattened, winds of around 27 km., a second bursting around and a loud noise heard far and wide. Tremors and air waves were felt as far away as even Washington and Indonesia.

The few eyewitness accounts that do exist recounted the terrifying explosion, strong winds, tremors and incredibly loud noises.

According to research from the Davidson Institute of Science Education, the educational arm of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, the impact of an asteroid around 190 meters in size would release an amount of energy at least a thousand times greater than the energy released by the first atomic bomb. Something even larger – over 300 meters wide like the asteroid Apophis, set for a very close but not-dangerous flyby in the near future – could destroy an entire continent.

It is for that reason that tracking these asteroids is so important, and a number of notable potentially hazardous asteroids such as Apophis and Bennu are visible on the app, as is information about them.

But there is more to asteroids than danger. NEOs also present tantalizing possible targets for asteroid mining, taking advantage of the objects often being rife with valuable materials such as iron and nickel. 

According to the asteroid value database Asterank, one notable NEO, 4660 Nereus, an approximately 330-meter wide asteroid that recently passed by the Earth, is said to have an estimated value of $4.71 billion. Others, like Anteros, are thought to be even more valuable, with an estimated value of $5.57 trillion. 

Naturally, asteroids relatively closer to Earth are more ideal targets for these missions than ones farther away, making knowledge of the many asteroids in our solar system and their positions relative to Earth important for more than simply averting doomsday.