Keeping a watchful eye on the sky

Tuesday February 26, 2013

Earlier this month, a meteor exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring more than 1,000 people, shattering windows and raining meteorite fragments over the area.

On that same day -- Feb. 15 -- an asteroid about half the size of a football field passed our planet, closer than some satellites in orbit around the planet.

"Astronomers say the two incidents are unrelated," National Public Radio host Ira Flatow stated last week, during his Science Friday broadcast. "But should this cosmic coincidence be a wake-up call? Are we doing enough to protect our planet from wayward space rocks? What needs to be done to discover and track these near-Earth objects, and who’s going to pay for it?"

Russia has already proposed a collective defense plan to protect Earth from asteroids following the Chelyabinsk meteor incident, according to the news service Voice of Russia. The idea was voiced by the Secretary of the Federal Security Service Nikolay Patrushev during a session in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg.

What makes the Chelyabinsk meteor all the more troubling is that, unlike the other celestial flyby that Friday, the meteor over Russia wasn’t detected by any telescope, which means there’s a potential threat of larger bodies going unnoticed.

"You’re just sticking your head in the sand if you think the world will live out its entire natural life until the end of our sun and never be hit by another big rock," Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield told the Canadian Press in a 2010 interview. "That’s just foolishness. That’s just ignorance."

Consider this: Scientists estimate that there are more than 750,000 asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, with diameters larger than three-fifths of a mile, along with millions of smaller ones, according to a recent report by the International Business Times. While most experts are at a loss as to exactly how asteroids in this belt originated, the leading theory is that most are the remains of a smaller group of larger objects, left over from the period when the planets formed. In other areas throughout the solar system, these space remnants gathered together, forming other planets and moons.

Also, consider this: There are some scientists who believe it was a collision with a giant asteroid approximately 65 million years ago which lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

And consider this: A 150-foot-wide space boulder exploded over a wooded area in Siberia in 1908 in what became known as the Tunguska event. More than 1,200 square miles of trees were flattened in an uninhabited area.

"So far we have found fewer than 1 percent of that ‘cosmic hailstorm’ through which we sail in our yearly orbit around the Sun," according to the Association of Space Explorers in a recent statement reported by The Space Review on Monday. "We are tracking fewer than 10,000 of them. Even our pathetically limited Space Situational Awareness of the threat shows that there were a total of 10 close approaches just this month and there are many more near approaches on the way, and currently 1,381 already identified potentially hazardous objects."

As we wrote in a 2010 editorial, there’s nothing new here to become concerned over -- interstellar collisions have been Hollywood fodder for years (remember 1998’s "Armageddon"?) and the building blocks of legends for decades (the aforementioned dinosaur theory). But stopping an asteroid -- if one were to be found on a collision course with Earth -- won’t be as easy as Hollywood makes it appear on the big screen.

"The basic technology to do this already exists," former U.S. astronaut Russell "Rusty" Schweickart told Canadian Press in a 2010 interview. "But the effort to steer an asteroid clear of the Earth would have to begin at least 10 years before the expected impact. One scenario involves smashing a spacecraft into the asteroid to knock it off its collision course."

As Adam Mann pointed out in a report filed last week by Wired, "There are plenty of programs already in place for monitoring relatively large near-Earth objects, and more will be coming online soon, both from government space agencies and the private sector. However, even the best efforts will not be able to catch objects the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor -- rocks that are small enough to evade detection by current technology until they are streaking through Earth’s atmosphere, but large enough to be dangerous."

Bill Harvey, a senior project manager at the Canadian Space Agency, in a 2010 interview told the Canadian Press that astronomers are currently keeping an eye on an asteroid named Apophis which could have a close brush with the planet in 2036. And former U.S. astronaut Schweickart points out that nearly 300 asteroids have some possibility of impacting the Earth in the next 100 years. Scientists also recently warned that "1999-RQ36," an asteroid that is more than 1,600 feet wide, has a one-in-1,000 chance of striking the planet in 2182.

And while no new money is likely to be coming to asteroid-spotting activities, the Russian "event" may cause "a shift in priorities to looking at this more than we have at the past," space policy expert Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University told Wired.

We think it would behoove our planet and all its inhabitants if U.S. and Russian officials worked together, along with the UN and other world powers (China and Japan?) to begin to construct a global plan for dealing with such issues. While this may seem like a newer phenomenon, the truth is our technological advances are only now making us aware of the very real and very dangerous space debris that could devastate our world. Once aware, could we really do anything to prevent an extinction-level occurrence? Maybe, maybe not. But without true teamwork, our chances don’t look too good.

And who knows ... Uniting together under one common goal could lead to stronger international bonds on a host of other issues, as well.


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