SADANAND: Previewing Deep Impact

Rarely do I have a “For serious? That just happened?!” moment while reading the morning news, but last month’s meteor explosion in Siberia was pretty freaky. I have never cared for meteoroids or their larger brethren, asteroids — after all, one of them was responsible for the mass murder of the dinosaurs. The films “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” only sharpened my space rock fears. Thankfully, nobody was killed as a result of the meteor explosion on Feb. 15. However, over 1,000 people were injured due to the explosion shock wave, primarily because of shattered windows. The explosion is estimated to have been 30 times stronger than that of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945. Had the meteor exploded closer to the surface, the damage may have been even worse. But arguably the scariest part of this story is that we didn’t see this 17 meter-wide space rock coming. Coincidentally, a known asteroid passed close by the previous day, but it is believed that the meteor and asteroid were not part of the same cluster of space objects since their orbits were different.

Last week, the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee and separately, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, hosted panels of NASA administrators and former astronauts to assess our preparedness for a meteor or asteroid collision. One of the NASA administrators estimated that approximately 10,000 large asteroids have been detected. This number is just a fraction of the number of asteroids out there, though. Less than 1 percent of small asteroids (30 to 100 meters in diameter) and only about 10 percent of asteroids larger than 140 meters in diameter have been detected. While these aren’t going to kill all earthlings, they could easily wipe out a city or even an entire state. Meteors like the one that exploded over Siberia are actually fairly small and difficult to detect with existing ground-based telescopes due to sun glare. Last week’s panel was optimistic that a future asteroid could be diverted — if given some prior warning. NASA and White House officials think it would take at least five years to develop a method for destroying or diverting an asteroid. Less warning time would likely mean that the most that could occur would be that the collision area could be evacuated. Or, to paraphrase NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s response to a question about what we could do if an asteroid was on a collision course towards Earth in just a few weeks: “Pray.”

NASA has an ambitious goal — set by Congress — of cataloging 90 percent of smaller asteroids  (between 140 meters and 1 kilometers in diameter) by 2020. NASA administrators believe this goal is more likely to be reached by 2030.  The budget allocated for finding new asteroids has risen fourfold in the past few years, but NASA and other space agencies around the world need more money to improve the lookout not only for huge asteroids but also for smaller asteroids and meteors that could wipe out entire cities. Unfortunately, the recent sequester has hit everyone — including NASA — very hard.

In the meantime, private groups have expressed an interest in taking on the challenge of detecting asteroids. A new telescope called the Sentinel is currently being developed by the nonprofit B612 Foundation, led by former astronaut Edward Lu. Thanks to its near-Venus orbit, the Sentinel would see more of the sky, including asteroids on the other side of the sun. The foundation is aiming to launch this telescope in 2018.

I recognize that there are many other pressing threats — global warming, pandemic flu and bad New Haven drivers — that endanger my life far more than an asteroid is likely to. The odds of a “city-killer” asteroid hitting the Earth are about one every 20,000 years. But some extra preparedness never hurts, and it is encouraging that private groups have stepped in to do what NASA cannot. Now, if only we could get Bruce Willis involved, we’d be all set.

 Saheli Sadanand is a graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology. Contact her at saheli.sadanand@yale.edu .

 

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