Those nerve-wracking, earth-grazing asteroids are getting entirely out of hand, and Stanford aeronautics professor Scott Hubbard has had enough. The former director of NASA Ames Research Center is now raising funds for the California-based non-profit B612 Foundation, which plans to put the Sentinel Space Telescope in orbit by the end of 2018 to seek out and identify the pesky space rocks before they get close enough to endanger the earth.
Last year, B612 said that an asteroid that would fit inside of a “high school sports stadium packs an impact energy of about 100 Megatons of TNT, which is about five times larger than all the bombs used in WWII.”
As Melissa Stusinski reported yesterday, four asteroids flew near the earth in just the last week, causing startled scientists to say that our solar system is something of a “cosmic shooting gallery.” The Russian victims of the recent meteor strike in that country can understand the feeling, and some Russian scientists have reportedly advocated the use of nuclear weapons to explode dangerous asteroids and prevent them from hitting again.
The most disturbing close miss involved a newly discovered asteroid called 2013 ET. No one knew that the large piece of space rock — which was the size of one-and-a-half football fields — even existed until March 3. “”But we know only maybe 1 percent of the asteroids in the 100 meter range,” Hubbard warned. Yet the foundation said that the impact from a stone that size colliding with the earth would be equivalent to setting off a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb.
Hubbard suggested that we need to find and track the other 99% of potential earth-grazing asteroids in that size range.
It won’t come cheap. The cost of building and launching Sentinel for that purpose is estimated to be $450 million. The cost of operating the search for dangerous asteroids will be more.
Yet what could we do to stop an asteroid from hitting the earth if we knew it was coming? NASA engineer Robert Frost said it in three words: “Right now, nothing.”
The Russian idea — blowing up asteroids with nuclear bombs — would probably make a great movie, but they haven’t explained why the radioactive particles created by such an explosion wouldn’t rain down on the earth, creating many smaller pieces of debris to strike all over the planet’s surface.
While it’s possible that we will develop new technology in the future to fight killer asteroids, it won’t be here soon. Do we want the ability to predict dangerous asteroids if we can’t do anything but sit and watch them come?
[asteroid photo courtesy NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and M. Mutchler (STScI) at hubblesite.org]