Monday, May 21, 2012

The asteroids await...

“NASA says that roughly 4,700 asteroids orbit close enough to Earth for us to be concerned for our safety—at least a little.”

That is the sub-headline of this article.  I like how that last phrase is tagged on, just to soften the findings and make them palatable to the masses of sheeple. 

Anyway, the fact remains that there are well over 4,000 asteroids near enough to strike our world.  This comes from a recent survey by NASA’s WISE (Wide-Infrared Survey Explorer) telescope.  Any asteroid that is nearer than five million miles from Earth and greater than 300 feet in diameter is officially designated as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).”   The size criterion for such an asteroid is based upon just how much of the rock will be left after crashing through the atmosphere.  Scientists who study asteroids say that a rock about 40 meters in diameter would cause the equivalent of a three megaton nuclear explosion if it impacted the Earth.  It’s easy to see how something wouldn’t need be particularly large…in the cosmic sense, anyway…to qualify as a “planet-killer.”

National Geographic reports that an asteroid designated as 2012 DA14 will pass so close to us next February that it might collide with one of our communication satellites.  Astronomers at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) concede that such an occurrence is mathematically unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out of the question.  Will it hit the Earth?  They’re giving us nearly 100% certainty that it won’t.

But consider this.  The asteroid in question was discovered only a few weeks ago.  Given its relatively large size, about 150 feet in diameter, it is only now a “fuzzy blob” seen through a telescope.  While this one wouldn’t do much damage (at least by the PHA rating rubric), what would we do if it were a threat?

Looks like NASA wants to do something about that risk.  They are partnering with the ESA and drawing up plans for a mission that would send astronauts to land on an asteroid.  The mission specialists would remain on the asteroid for one month, living in their landing module and driving little vehicles around on the surface.  While the mission would be to “study the asteroid,” the real reason behind the research would be to “study how to blow one up.”  That’s right.  Just like in that awful movie, Armageddon.  Including roundtrip travel time, the mission would last about one year.  How serious are they about this?  Apparently, very much so.  There is a capsule 65 feet deep in the Atlantic with several astronauts living in it for 12 days, just trying it out to see if anyone goes nuts.

Are people aware of this danger?  If so, do they just shrug it off with a “whattayagonnado?” and just continue shopping and crowding into bars? Or maybe they’re still focused on being scared of “them Muslims?”  I don’t mean to belabor my frustrations with the swirling toilet of our society, but I sometimes wonder if an asteroid hit wouldn’t do us a bit of good.
Yet that comparison the first article made between asteroid impacts and nuclear detonations does give pause for concern.  Namely that a military force might want to gain control an asteroid’s trajectory and hurl it towards Earth, rather like the aliens did in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall.  This would only happen of course if the big rock could be accurately aimed.

At the very least, they could make for affordable satellite killers.

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