An ex-Microsoft exec claims there was more than a little wrong with the agency's studies on threats from killer asteroids.
A former Microsoft executive has put NASA scientists in the hot seat over what he calls a series of statistically flawed studies pertaining to the dangers presented by asteroids in the solar system. According to a report from the New York Times, Nathan P. Myhrvold, once the chief technologist at Microsoft, has raised concerns about the agency’s interpretation of data gathered by the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE spacecraft.
The project was launched in 2009 and intended to image nearly a billion stars, galaxies, and the heat emissions of asteroids. A follow-up project called Neowise calculated the size and reflectivity of some 158,000 asteroids using the data collected by WISE.
“The bad news is it’s all basically wrong,” said Dr. Myhrvold. “Unfortunately for a lot of it, it’s never going to be as accurate as they had hoped.” Myhrvold submitted his analysis of the Neowise project’s conclusions in the journal Icarus.
The analysis points to a number of things NASA scientists may have glossed over while designing the Neowise methodology. “From the practical perspective of finding asteroids, it’s really important that we know the distribution of diameters and the distribution of albedos,” Myhrvold said. Albedo refers to the reflectivity of an asteroid’s surface – a key factor in identifying an asteroid in space.
Myhrvold’s analysis suggests that the margin of error for NASA’s asteroid size estimates surpassed 100 percent in many cases, as opposed to the agency’s stated 10 percent margin. Myhrvold argues that not knowing the actual size of an asteroid could have grave consequences should one get too close to the Earth.
NASA scientists fired back, claiming that Myhrvold, who is not an astronomer, lacked the expertise to make such a strong judgment on the projects. “He’s a very smart man,” said NASA scientist Lindley Johnson. “But that doesn’t make him an expert in everything.”
Dr. Myhrvold’s study can be found here.