This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… three to ten times more, in fact. A new visualization of data from a nuclear weapons warning network, to be unveiled by B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu during the evening event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, shows that “the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck.”
Since 2001, 26 atomic-bomb-scale explosions have occurred in remote locations around the world, far from populated areas, made evident by a nuclear weapons test warning network. In a recent press release B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu states:
“This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts. It shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare — but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought. The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck. The goal of the B612 Sentinel mission is to find and track asteroids decades before they hit Earth, allowing us to easily deflect them.”
The B612 Foundation is partnered with Ball Aerospace to build the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope Mission. Once positioned in solar orbit closer to the Sun from Earth, Sentinel will look outwards in infrared to detect hundreds of thousands of as-yet unknown near-Earth objects over 140 meters in size. The privately-funded spacecraft is slated to launch in 2017-18 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
In addition to Lu, Space Shuttle astronaut Tom Jones and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders will be speaking at the event, titled “Saving the Earth by Keeping Big Asteroids Away.”
“If we get hit 20 years from now, that’s not bad luck. That’s stupidity.”
That’s what former NASA astronaut Ed Lu has to say about asteroids and our efforts to search for them. He delivered those comments at a panel discussion today at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. He and several other astronauts spoke on behalf of the Association of Space Explorers (which, as the name implies, consists of astronauts, cosmonauts and the like.)
We guess that as astute readers of our publication, you know that a planetary threat from asteroids (and comets) exists. And there’s certainly more we can do; when that 17-meter asteroid blasted Russia earlier this year, Lu said most space agencies learned about it from social media!
So what’s being done about these threats? Here’s a roundup of the panel discussion’s information and some related information.
Asteroid searching and deflection:
Since Lu is the CEO of the B612 Foundation, there was a heavy emphasis on the agency’s proposed Sentinel telescope. Intended to launch in 2018, it would survey the solar system in infrared and seek out potential hazards.
To date, NASA’s NEO Observations Program has found 95 per cent of near-Earth objects larger than one kilometer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Amy Mainzer told Universe Today in a separate conversation today.
TheWISE spacecraft’s NEOWISE mission, meanwhile, is going to restart early next year, Mainzer added. “While NEOWISE is not nearly as capable as NEOCam will be, it will improve our knowledge of the diameters and albedos of about 2,000 NEOs and tens of thousands of main belt asteroids,” Mainzer wrote. “With the NEOWISE prime mission, we discovered more than 34,000 new asteroids and observed >158,000 in total. We have used our data from NEOWISE to set constraints on the number of NEOs and potentially hazardous asteroids.”
Former NASA astronaut Tom Jones shared this slide concerning ideas for asteroid defense. Credit: Tom Jones/Association for Space Explorers/AMNH/Ustream (screenshot)
Getting the United Nations involved:
This week, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space adopted several steps related to asteroids. It’s planning an International Asteroid Warning Group (to share detections and warn of potential impacts), an Impact Disaster Planning Advisory Group, and a Space Missions Planning and Advisory Group (which would look at deflection missions, options, costs, etc.)
Why go with the United Nations? In the panel, NASA Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart explained it this way: deciding how to deflect an asteroid posts risks. You might be moving the impact path past a country that would not have been at risk before the deflection. It’s best to make such moves internationally, rather than having (say) the United States make a decision that could increase Russia’s risk to an asteroid.
The problem? Working by committee is slow, says former Romanian astronaut Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu: “You would think with the United Nations that we started to think about asteroids only in 2007, 8 or 9, but the first input was done by 1999 at the Unispace conference, the United Nations International Conference in Space.” People have been working hard, to be sure, but making a good, inclusive plan just takes time. An action team was formed in 2001, a working group was in place by 2007, and the adoptions by UNCOPUOS (as we stated earlier) took place this week.
Cost of all of this:
Schweickart: “Money is hardly an issue in this. This is a very inexpensive thing to do. It’s organizational setting the actual criteria, thresholds whatever.” It would only cost 1% of the NASA budget for the next 10 years, and less than 0.5% after that. (The NASA budget request for 2014 was $17.7 billion, so 1% of that is $177 million.)
The panel members emphasized that it’s best to start the search early and find the threatening asteroids before things become an emergency. If a moderate-sized asteroid was discovered only a few months out, it might be better just to evacuate the affected area rather than try to pull together a last-minute mission to stop the asteroid.