In the movies, when the Earth is threatened by killer asteroids, experts are always found and the Earth is usually saved. Now, real experts at NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) insist that catastrophe-causing asteroid impacts are preventable, so why would a city- or region-killing asteroid still be unstoppable? The answer is unconscionably simple: Even though Earth has the wherewithal to prevent asteroid strikes that could potentially wipe out cities or perhaps even cause an extinction level event like that which contributed to the death of the dinosaurs, there is currently no defense system in place that could both detect and deflect a hazardous asteroid — or comet — headed toward a collision with Earth.
As Huffington Post recently pointed out, there are roughly 15,000 asteroids located in an area where they acquire the label of Near-Earth Asteroids or Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). And that is just the number that has been detected thus far. An estimated 30 per week are added to the registry kept by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is overseen by the International Astronomical Union. Among the most recent additions to the list was a 10-foot-wide asteroid that breached the ring of satellites orbiting the Earth and came within 9,000 miles of the planet. The addition would hardly be worthy of mention had it not come so close to Earth — and had it not been detected just six hours prior to its near miss fly-by.
And the reason for mentioning it at all? It — and several other near-miss asteroids flying by our planet in the span of a few weeks earlier this year — indicates very clearly how vulnerable Earth actually is against an asteroid or comet strike. And as the Post pointed out, there are no “measures in place to prevent the space rock from hitting us,” even though the technology exists to do so.
NASA and the ESA are currently collaborating in an effort to address this lack of planetary defense. Known as AIDA (Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment), the international collaboration is planning a proposal on how to alter the path of an asteroid posing a danger to Earth. Since the proposal is in its infancy, it is still a few years shy of the first stages of actualization, according to Ed Beshore, an engineer who helped build the Catalina Sky Survey software technology, which, incidentally, was who discovered that aforementioned 10-foot-wide asteroid.
As with any project, it needs funding, and Congress has yet to allocate the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to fund deflection missions. Beshore puts it all down to Congress’s risk assessment.
“Risk is the product of two things: the likelihood that something’s going to happen and the consequences if it does. Consequence is dictated by the size of these objects. How big are they and what’s the likelihood that we’re going to get hit by a big enough object to do some damage?”
But even though the risk of being impacted by a massive asteroid does not appear to be immediate, it should be noted that the threat is all too real. Alasdair Wilkins, the associate science editor at Vocativ, explained in an informational video on NEOs and the possibilities of catastrophic impacts that only about 25 percent of all asteroids measuring 140 meters (less than one-tenth of a mile) wide or larger have been detected thus far.
Wilkins also noted that asteroids or comets this size (at around 140 meters) are capable of causing regional devastation (roughly the size of New England). He went on to say in the video, which provides a range of sizes of space objects and their zones of potential devastation, that it would be at least two decades before any realistic defense against dangerous NEOs could be mounted.
Beshore is all too aware of the need for a response policy for threats from asteroid impacts, and he sees an urgency, regardless if such an impact were to occur in the near future or at later.
“At some level, if a 140-meter (400-foot) diameter asteroid hit, the damage it could cause is on the order of the kind of damage that something like [Hurricane] Katrina or a large earthquake could cause.”
It isn’t as if Congress does not understand the threat. They passed the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Act, which called for the detecting, tracking, and cataloging of up to 90 percent of NEOs 14o meters wide and larger, back in 2005. And yet, funding for a working deflection system has yet to be allocated. In fact, as Huffington Post reported, the Trump administration is set to cut NASA funding in the upcoming budget.
Still, in addition to AIDA, scientists around the world have been working on detection and deflection systems. They met at a conference held in San Francisco in December and presented ideas on various strategies and defense systems with which to combat the imminent threat of killer asteroids and comets.
To emphasize the seriousness of the asteroid (and comet) threat, NASA scientist Joseph Nuth made headlines when he said that Earth was overdue for a “dinosaur killer” asteroid, a space rock the size of the impactor that is believed to have contributed to the extinction event that swept the planet 66 million years ago and led to the demise of the dinosaurs. Recognizing that the average mission, from conception to launch, took about five years to actualize, Nuth said that, should a massive asteroid or comet be bearing down on Earth, “there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment.”
[Featured Image by muratart/Shutterstock]