How many NEOs are out there?

Two methods are used to calculate a first statistic of the population of NEOs surrounding Earth:

From these two methods it is possible to obtain the following curve representing the population of NEOs:

Image courtesy of Andrea Carusi.
This image represents today's best estimation of the number of NEOs surrounding Earth. The number of NEOs is represented as a function of the diameters of the objects (the two axes are in logarithmic scale). This estimation is far from being precise (the dashed lines represent the error of the estimation). The error is much bigger for small asteroids, and this is due to a bias observation.

It is clear form this figure that the number of NEOs grows inversely from diameters: there are much more small NEOs than big ones. Furthermore, the dependence between the diameter and the number of NEOs is not linear: three different regions can be identified where the dependence is linear (in logarithmic scale). This could be explained saying that there are different production laws for objects of different dimensions: when they break up, the very big objects produce a much larger number of fragments than the smaller ones.

Direct observations

A first statistics can be deduced from the number of observed NEOs, which changes very fast with the progress of observational techniques. From direct observations, it is possible to measure the brightness and consequently the dimension of these objects. These observations are obviously easier for large NEOs, and so there is what is called an observational bias.

This is a representation of how the number of known NEAs (Near Earth Asteroids) grows each year. Two important things are to notice: first, the big growth of this number in the last years is due to new technologies. Second thing, the observational bias that leads to detect more easily big objects, seems to have every year minor effects. In fact, in the last year, large NEAs have become a very smaller fraction of all discovered NEAs (in 2000 , 4/10 of all discovered NEAs while in 1980 almost all known NEAs were large ones).

Image courtesy NASA


Observations of the surfaces of surrounding planets


A Moon's crater
Analyzing the craters' distribution on the planets' without atmosphere surfaces, it is possible to deduce the number of NEOs that have impacted the planets and therefore, the number of NEOs that are orbiting around them.. In fact the dimension of craters are proportional to the diameters of the impactors. The study and cataloging of craters is also a good method to date the surface, since the number of observable craters will be proportional to the time the surface has been exposed to bombardment.

Normally this estimation is done on the Moon's surface, being quite sure that the distribution of objects falling on the Moon is similar to the one of Earth, being the two objects near.
This estimation is done taking in consideration some hypothesis: