A direct asteroid impact on Earth that causes catastrophic damage will occur “sooner or later,” an expert has warned, and it is not a matter of if, but when. The worst part? The Earth has the technology and wherewithal to detect, prepare, and defend itself against a potentially devastating asteroid impact but, to date, is virtually unable to mount a defense.
Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, told the Daily Mail ahead of International Asteroid Day on Friday (June 30), “Sooner or later we will get… a minor or major impact.”
Densing noted that the asteroid impact event might not take place in our lifetime. Still, he asserts the following.
“… the risk that Earth will get hit in a devastating event one day is very high.”
Astronomers and other scientists know that there are millions of space rocks hurtling through the Solar System, thousands of which, unbeknownst to most of the seven-plus billion inhabitants of Earth, are small enough to burn up upon entry into the atmosphere. It is also understood that approximately 90 percent of all asteroids in the “dinosaur killer” size range have been located and none oppose an immediate threat to the planet. However, relatively small asteroids — those in the neighborhood of 140 meters (459 feet) in diameter can do tremendous damage to a city, region, and/or even a continent. It is estimated that only 70-80 percent of asteroids in the 140-meter range have been detected.
“Now that we have discovered most of the [asteroids] that are about a kilometer in size and larger, the goal is to discover most of the ones which are [up to] about 140 m,” said Patrick Michel, an astrophysicist with France’s CNRS research institute. “This is the threshold—if an object of this size impacts the Earth—for regional damage at the scale of a country or a continent.”
And that is not the worst of it. There are millions of asteroids tumbling through the Solar System between 15 meters and 140 meters, most undetected. In fact, the U.S. Congress labeled asteroids at 140 meters and less “city killers,” according to Space News, and less than 1 percent of them have been detected.
To provide proper perspective, the Chelyabinsk meteor that detonated in the atmosphere over Russia in February 2013 damaged buildings and shattered windows in a 58-mile radius. The aftershock sent 1,600 people to the hospital. Fortunately, the blast occurred six miles up in the atmosphere, and no one was killed. However, that blast released energy the equivalent of over 20 atomic bombs the size of the device dropped on Hiroshima.
Experts like Densing point out that little is being done to defend Earth from a potentially catastrophic asteroid strike. Besides a few programs like NEOWISE, which detects and catalogs asteroids and near-Earth Objects for NASA, little else is being done to detect those aforementioned potentially dangerous asteroids. However, detection is one thing — and important: the Chelyabinsk meteor arrived without prior warning from the direction of the Sun — but is rendered nearly useless if the Earth is not prepared and capable of defending itself against an impending impact.
Densing said that the Earth is virtually defenseless.
“We are not ready to defend ourselves… We have no active planetary defense measures.”
As far as those measures are concerned, the Daily Mail pointed out that European ministers in December vetoed the funding of a first-ever mission to intentionally crash a probe into a small asteroid as a test to alter its trajectory. On a more optimistic note, NASA announced in mid-June that plans were moving forward to build a spacecraft to do much the same thing. Called DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test), it is thus far scheduled to launch and impact against the smaller asteroid of a binary pairing that will pass by Earth in 2022.
However, having the ability to defend, which the governments and space agencies of Earth have for the first time in the history of the planet, is not the same as being capable of doing so. There are as yet no planetary defenses in place to mitigate or destroy an Earth-bound asteroid threat.
Still, there are other plans to ward off approaching asteroids — targeting a space rock with nuclear weapons, shooting the threat with lasers, landing mechanical impactors to nudge the asteroids away from Earth, and other means. But defense takes time. And defensive protocols and equipment in a state of preparedness will have to be set up. Because, as the Chelyabinsk event indicates, time may not be a beneficial factor.
Back in December, NASA scientist Joseph Nuth made headlines warning that another “dinosaur killer” asteroid was due. He also pointed out the lack of a working planetary defense against the threat of asteroids or comets. And Nuth prefaced Densing by observing that, even if the Earth was given a couple of years to ready itself, it would not be enough time to potentially stop or mitigate the threat due to the lack of preparedness.
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