Team of scientists try to find and fend off killer asteroids

December 18, 2008

Washington (ChattahBox) — Even though there are plenty of problems to solve before we humans destroy our own planet some are looking skyward for a random silent threat. US congress has commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to determine the best way to detect and ward off any wandering space rocks that might be on a collision course with Earth. The committee selected by the National Academy of Sciences on Congress’ behest is headed by Irwin Shapiro , a former director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. It has a two-part assignment from Congress : Detect and deflect asteroids that might hit earth.

First, the Shapiro committee is supposed to propose the best way to detect and analyze 90 percent of the so-called “near Earth objects” orbiting between Mars and Venus that are wider than 460 feet by 2020. About 20 percent of these are identified as potentially hazardous objects because they might pass within 5 million miles of Earth (20 times the distance to the Moon).

One of it’s first priorities is looking at an asteroid called Apophis that has an extremely slight chance of slamming into Earth. Apophis was discovered in 2004 about 17 million miles from Earth on a course that would overlap our planet’s orbit in 2029 and return seven years later. Observers said that the asteroid — a massive boulder left over from the birth of the solar system — is about 1,000 feet wide and weighs at least 50 million tons.

After further observations, astronomers reported that the asteroid would skim by Earth harmlessly in 2029, but it has a one in 44,000 probability of slamming into our planet on Easter Sunday , April 13, 2036 which would have a devastating effect. But according to Jon Giorgini, a planetary analyst in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., any small changes in Apophis’ path could make the difference between a hit or a miss are possible, When Apophis makes its first pass by Earth, its track can be more precisely determined. That will enable astronomers to judge whether Earth will escape with a near miss or will have to take swift action to avoid a blow that could devastate a region as large as Europe or the Eastern United States .

More than 5,000 near Earth objects, including 789 potentially hazardous objects, have been identified so far. Scientists have predicted that future surveys will find at least 66,000 near Earth objects and 18,000 potentially hazardous objects.

The Shapiro panel’s second task is to review various methods that have been proposed to deflect or destroy an incoming asteroid and recommend the best options. They include a nuclear bomb, conventional explosives or a spacecraft that would push or pull the asteroid off its course.

The earlier that a dangerous asteroid is found, and the farther it is from Earth, the easier it will be to change its trajectory, panel members were told. A relatively small force would be enough while the object is millions of miles away. To deflect an asteroid, scientists need to know its shape, weight and composition. A ball of loose rubble would be handled differently from a solid metallic rock.

So far, NASA has spent $41 million on asteroid detection and deflection, but the Near Earth Object Program is running out of money. Two expensive telescopes to focus on dangerous asteroids have been proposed, but Congress and the incoming Obama administration must be persuaded to approve the money. Because without the new telescopes, the idea of getting to 90 percent detection is lost.


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