NASA Unveils Program Aimed At Preventing An Asteroid Apocalypse

Among Earth's natural disasters-hurricanes, floods, earthquakes-the one humans probably ponder least is asteroids, huge objects zipping through our solar system at ludicrous speeds.

Federal officials call an asteroid or comet collision "low probability but high consequence," NASA-speak for it will probably never happen, but if it does we're toast. With that in mind, the U.S. and other nations have long sought to track such "near-Earth objects," or NEOs, coordinating efforts through the International Asteroid Warning Network and the United Nations.

The Trump administration now wants to enhance those efforts to detect and track potential planet killers, and to develop more capable means to deflect any that appear to be on a collision course.

"Fortunately, this type of destructive event is extremely rare," said Aaron Miles, an official with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But just to be safe, the government unveiled new goals this week for NASA's work on countering NEOs over the next decade. If you're envisioning Bruce Willis or humming an Aerosmith song, please stop. This is serious.

More than 300,000 objects larger than 40 meters (131 feet) wide orbit the sun as NEOs, according to NASA estimates, with many being difficult to detect more than a few days in advance. Forty meters is about the average size an object must be to make it through the atmosphere without burning up; thousands of much-smaller meteors disintegrate harmlessly each day far above the planet. The meteor that injured more than 1,000 people in Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013, mainly by glass shattered from the shock wave of its explosion, was believed to be about 20 meters wide (65 feet).

The most recent encounter with an asteroid was on June 2, when a 2-meter boulder dubbed 2018 LA entered the atmosphere at 10 miles per second (38,000 mph) and exploded over Botswana.

OK, now here's the good news: NASA has documented roughly 96 percent of the objects large enough to cause a global catastrophe since work began in 1998, said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. On Thursday alone, five massive asteroids zipped within 4.6 million miles of Earth-which is pretty close in space-including one called 2017 YE5, a 1,600-foot wide behemoth that, if it paid us a visit, would ruin everyone's day. But NASA has its number.

Also good news: This growing catalog of potentially Armageddon-causing (don't do it-the movie was terrible) objects offers the world years of notice about when an orbit would intercept Earth, given the immense distances asteroids and comets travel through space. For example, 101955 Bennu, a 1,600-foot wide carbon asteroid found in 1999 and which figures prominently in NASA's current deep-space research, has only a 1-in-24,000 chance of hitting Earth-and that's 157 years from now.

Today, NASA's catalog contains 18,310 NEOs, with about 8,000 of them classified as 140 meters wide and larger. That's the size at which enormous regional impacts and mass casualties would occur if one hit. How government agencies would prepare for such a calamity is a novelty to most.

"One of the key things we're finding is that, for emergency managers, this is so different we have to first educate them," said Leviticus Lewis, a response coordinator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now, more bad news: A chance remains that large comets from the outer solar system could suddenly appear and hit Earth with only a few months' warning. There's also the potential for a surprise from deep space-an object whose orbit isn't bound by the sun-like the kind that showed up last October. That's when Oumuamua, a 400-meter, cigar-shaped oddity, whizzed past the sun at almost 200,000 mph. The intriguing object was the first known to have come from interstellar space, to which it is now returning.

So can we do anything? NASA has devised three strategies for potentially sparing Earth annihilation by asteroid, with each method's effectiveness determined by the size and composition of an asteroid and how much warning there is.

Kinetic impact: A direct hit with a spacecraft to produce even a miniscule nudge may be sufficient if the asteroid has millions of miles yet to travel before it strikes the planet. Gravity: Attaching a spacecraft to an asteroid-what NASA dubs a "gravity tractor"-would alter its path because of the enlarged mass. And landing on a NEO is well within science's current toolbox: The European Space Agency landed on a comet four years ago, and Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is nearing an asteroid called Ryuga this month. NASA plans a similar rendezvous in December with Bennu. The downside-an asteroid can't be larger than 100 meters wide or this technique won't work. Nuke it: No, not like the movie. A nuclear explosion on a massive asteroid would superheat the surface and cause some of the mass to slough off, Johnson said on a call June 20 with reporters. A rocket could then theoretically push the asteroid to a different trajectory. This option, however, works only for a large body of which scientists have at least a decade's notice.

The Obama and Trump administrations have both sought more funds for asteroid research, with the annual budget jumping from $12 million to $150 million in this administration's most recent request.

Most of that funding is for NASA to complete its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in 2021-22. The goal is to impact the smaller "moonlet" of a binary asteroid called Didymos, to learn how well we may be able to alter the course of a future killer rock.

If successful, then mankind will know it has a viable option, if someday we see something headed our way.

Dinosaur asteroid hit 'worst possible place'

Scientists who drilled into the impact crater associated with the demise of the dinosaurs summarise their findings so far in a BBC Two documentary on Monday.

The researchers recovered rocks from under the Gulf of Mexico that were hit by an asteroid 66 million years ago.

The nature of this material records the details of the event.

It is becoming clear that the 15km-wide asteroid could not have hit a worse place on Earth.

https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/624/cpsprodpb/CA49/production/_96058715_bm_bm_eotd_02738308.jpgThe drill rig was on station in the Gulf in April and May last year / BARCROFT PRODUCTIONS/BBC

The shallow sea covering the target site meant colossal volumes of sulphur (from the mineral gypsum) were injected into the atmosphere, extending the "global winter" period that followed the immediate firestorm.

Had the asteroid struck a different location, the outcome might have been very different.

"This is where we get to the great irony of the story – because in the end it wasn’t the size of the asteroid, the scale of blast, or even its global reach that made dinosaurs extinct – it was where the impact happened," said Ben Garrod, who presents The Day The Dinosaurs Died with Alice Roberts.

https://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/624/cpsprodpb/5901/production/_96058722_bm_bm_eotd_02738320.jpgThe fractured rocks were subjected to immense pressures / BARCROFT PRODUCTIONS/BBC

"Had the asteroid struck a few moments earlier or later, rather than hitting shallow coastal waters it might have hit deep ocean.

"An impact in the nearby Atlantic or Pacific oceans would have meant much less vaporised rock – including the deadly gypsum. The cloud would have been less dense and sunlight could still have reached the planet’s surface, meaning what happened next might have been avoided.

"In this cold, dark world food ran out of the oceans within a week and shortly after on land. With nothing to eat anywhere on the planet, the mighty dinosaurs stood little chance of survival."

Ben Garrod spent time on the drill rig that was stationed 30km off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in April/May last year, to better understand the aims of the project; Alice Roberts visited widely separated fossil beds in the Americas, to get a sense of how life was upended by the impact.

Rock cores from up to 1,300m beneath the Gulf were recovered.

The lowest sections of this material come from a feature within the crater called the peak ring.

This is made from rock that has been heavily fractured and altered by immense pressures.

By analysing its properties, the drill project team - led by Profs Jo Morgan and Sean Gulick - hope to reconstruct how the impact proceeded and the environmental changes it brought about.

Chicxulub Crater - The impact that changed life on Earth

  • A 15km-wide object dug a hole in Earth's crust 100km across and 30km deep
  • This bowl then collapsed, leaving a crater 200km across and a few km deep
  • The crater's centre rebounded and collapsed again, producing an inner ring
  • Today, much of the crater is buried offshore, under 600m of sediments
  • On land, it is covered by limestone, but its rim is traced by an arc of sinkholes
  • They know now the energy that went into making the crater when the asteroid struck - equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima A-bombs. And they also understand how the depression assumed the structure we observe today.

    The team is also gaining insights into the return of life to the impact site in the years after the event.

    One of the many fascinating sequences in the BBC Two programme sees Alice Roberts visit a quarry in New Jersey, US, where 25,000 fossil fragments have been recovered - evidence of a mass die-off of creatures that may have been among the casualties on the day of the impact itself.

    "All these fossils occur in a layer no more than 10cm thick," palaeontologist Ken Lacovara tells Alice.

    "They died suddenly and were buried quickly. It tells us this is a moment in geological time. That's days, weeks, maybe months. But this is not thousands of years; it's not hundreds of thousands of years. This is essentially an instantaneous event."

    The Day The Dinosaurs Died is on BBC Two at 21:00, after which it will be available on the BBC iPlayer.

Humans Are Totally Unprepared For A Potential Asteroid Strike, NASA Scientist Warns

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Nuth said: “The biggest problem, basically, is there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment,” according to The Guardian.

Despite the NASA planetary defence office having been established – with the aim to observe the skies for possible asteroid strikes – this will supposedly not give us a large enough window to begin a preventative mission.

In fact, it takes years to complete a ‘deflection’ operation – five to launch a spacecraft - and the most recent ‘near miss’ with Mars in 2014 was only noticed 22 months before impact.

Admittedly there is a very low chance of an earth impact in the next 100 years, approximately 0.01% according to NASA themselves, but Nuth said: “On the other hand they are the extinction-level events, things like dinosaur killers, they’re 50 to 60 million years apart, essentially.

“You could say, of course, we’re due, but it’s a random course at that point.”

The current plan of action is mass evacuation, but Nuth recommend that NASA build an interceptor rocket with periodic testing, alongside an observer spacecraft to stop catastrophic fireballs from hitting us.

However even if we were able to cut the action time in half, Nuth still says this would be a “hail-mary pass”.

Back in August, NASA sent a probe to an asteroid, Bennu, that could one day hit Earth and bring about our downfall. 

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta confirmed that in 2135 its believed Bannu will pass between the Earth and the moon, and could potentially leave a wake of destruction.

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