A NASA research scientist has warned that an asteroid or comet strike of sufficient size could spell the end of the world, its impact touching off an extinction level series of events, simply because the Earth is unprepared to defend itself against such an occurrence. In fact, given what we do have and the time it would take to respond, "there's not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment."
The Guardian reported this week that NASA scientist Dr. Joseph Nuth, who does research for the Goddard Space Flight Center, noted that humanity was ill-prepared to defend itself against a surprise asteroid or comet. Speaking at a presentation with nuclear scientists, he was there to suggest how humans might actually deflect dangerous objects heading toward a collision with Earth. And his words were far from encouraging in that the planet could mount an effective defense against a civilization-ending asteroid or comet.
"The biggest problem, basically, is there's not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment."Nuth pointed out to the gathering in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union that the Earth had escaped a possible extinction-level "close encounter" in 1996 with the incoming comet Shoemaker-Levy. Luckily for the Earth, Jupiter, acting as the Solar System's gravitational slingshot or catch-all (depending upon how close an object gets to its strong gravity field), captured that wandering object and tore it apart. (And, according to CBS News, our giant gaseous neighbor did so again earlier this year.) Another comet, Nuth said, came "within cosmic spitting distance of Mars" and was discovered just 22 months prior to its passage.
There is also another problem. The Earth is due a "dinosaur killer" asteroid impact, kind of.
"But on the other hand they are the extinction-level events, things like dinosaur killers, they're 50 to 60 million years apart, essentially. You could say, of course, we're due, but it's a random course at that point."
And then there is the problem of Earth's general lack of preparedness against a potential impactor -- a killer asteroid, as it were. "If you look at the schedule for high-reliability spacecraft and launching them, it takes five years to launch a spacecraft," Nuth said. And in regard to the aforementioned passing comet, "We had 22 months of total warning."
Thankfully, the comet was not on a collision course with the Earth. The next time, the Earth might find itself in the way.
So, given that the Earth is in grave danger of -- at any given moment -- being approached, and maybe without much warning, by an asteroid that could cause damage on a planetary scale, what can be done to protect the humanity from the so-called "dinosaur killers."
Nuth himself has proposed that NASA construct an "interceptor rocket" that can be readied and launched within a year's notice. Such a vehicle could help "mitigate the possibility of a sneaky asteroid coming in from a place that's hard to observe, like from the sun".
An object flying from the direction of the sun is a scenario that the entire world knows a bit about. In February, 2013, a previously undetected meteor traveling Earthward from the sun ripped across the skies and disintegrated above Russia in the Chelyabinsk Oblast. It detonated with such force (an estimated 29 times the energy released at Hiroshima) that, even though it was still miles above the ground, it caused some 1,500 individuals to seek medical aid and damaged thousands of buildings in the region.
The Guardian reported that Dr. Cathy Piesko of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who was in attendance at the conference in San Francisco, said there were other options to explore as well. In trying to deflect or somewhat neutralize the force of the incoming asteroid, "a kinetic impactor," which she said was "basically a giant cannonball," might be used. A nuclear warhead was also an option.
Of course, whatever method used to deflect or destroy the asteroid could have serious repercussions should the action meet with partial or no success, or even if the components of the asteroid were mischaracterized. Nuth said the scientists were "doing their homework."
"We don't want to be doing our calculations before something is coming," he said. "We need to have this work done."
NASA has discovered an estimated 90 percent or so of near-Earth objects larger than a kilometer (0.62 miles), which is basically the size that could cause catastrophic devastation on Earth. The "dinosaur killer" that created the Chicxulub crater off of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula some 65 million years ago was estimated to be approximately 10 kilometers (six miles) wide. Still, as noted, smaller objects can be extremely dangerous, and NASA has found 874 one-kilometer-wide or smaller asteroids among 1,748 "potentially hazardous asteroids" detected thus far.
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