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The First Step in Saving Our Planet


Gordon Rowlinson

In March, NASA boss Charles Bolden made national news when he bluntly answered a question from the House Science Committee. When Florida Congressman Bill Posey asked Bolden what we should do NASA detected a small asteroid was to hit New York City in three weeks, Bolden, decided to answer honestly, "The answer to you is, if it's coming in three weeks, pray."

Bolden comments caused public outrage as the US public is accustomed to thinking the government has the capability to defend the country, and most are aware that several asteroids caused havoc when they buzzed Russia in February. The fact of the matter is that currently there is no plan to defend the planet from a killer asteroid and praying is the only option. That may be changing.

The European Space Agency and NASA announced in February that they are joining forces to intentionally smash a spacecraft into a near-earth asteroid in 2022. The plan, known as AIDA-Asteroid Impact and Deflection mission, is to push the asteroid off course by only a few millimeters. If the mission is successful, it would provide insights on how to deflect larger, more threatening asteroids that pose a threat to earth.

There is more good news. Last year, President Obama announced a new plan to launch a manned mission to a near-earth asteroid by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars in the mid-2030s. This is a cost-cutting move for NASA as it delays the more expensive and more difficult mission to Mars. However there are positives to this new plan as the asteroid mission will develop the know-how to rendezvous and land on an asteroid. Also, the new mission may include attempts to alter the asteroid's orbit.

Following the president's space vision speech, astrophysicist John Grunsfeld, a veteran of five shuttle missions, suggested that the mission should nudge the space rock to change its trajectory. He stated, "By going to a near-Earth object, an asteroid, and perhaps even modifying its trajectory slightly, we would demonstrate a hallmark in human history. The first time humans showed that we can make better decisions than the dinosaurs made 65 million years ago." It also should be noted that President Obama's 2014 NASA budget, which was released in April, includes funding for developing ways to deflect asteroids.

There is also good news from the private sector. The B612 foundation, which is a nonprofit organization, is planning on building and operating an infrared space telescope to be placed in orbit around the Sun in order to discover and track asteroids whose orbits approach Earth and threaten humanity. Currently it is difficult to detect asteroids that approach from the sun's direction. The B612 telescope, called Sentinel, is estimated to cost $450 million, and the foundation has a goal of launching the telescope within five years.

If protecting the earth from killer asteroids sounds like Science Fiction to the reader, it should. The idea of an asteroid or a comet impacting with the earth and threatening catastrophe is a common Sci Fi theme. The best known use of this idea in literature is Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama in 1972 and his short story The Hammer of God in 1992. In films, the first the to use this threatening asteroid idea was “The Green Slime” in 1962 (With a name like “The Green Slime” you know this flick has to be a great movie.) In 1979, a forgettable movie named Meteor used this idea. More recently and more popular were the 1998 movies, Armageddon and Deep Impact.

One could rationalize that it is a waste of money to study how to destroy a killer asteroid as the last time such an event occurred on earth was when the dinosaurs were pushed into extinction 65 million years ago. I would like to note that in 1994, the Shoemaker-Levy comet crashed into the planet Jupiter. Massive Jupiter has been called a cosmic vacuum cleaner and consistently attracts more space objects than the earth. Still, if such a space object the size of Shoemaker-Levy comet hit the planet earth in 1994, we'd all be extinct now and you wouldn't be reading any of this.

Any moves to make the planet safer and to prevent the human race from going the way of the dinosaurs are moves in the right direction.

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