Last week, a small asteroid was detected just two hours before it impacted Earth’s atmosphere. Luckily, it was only about 3 meters (10 feet) wide, and the space rock, now known as 2022 EB5 likely burned up in Earth’s atmosphere near Iceland at 21:22 UTC on March 11.
While it is wonderful that astronomers can detect asteroids of that size heading towards our planet — as well as determine the asteroid’s trajectory and precisely predicted its impact location — the last-minute nature of the discovery definitely causes a pause. What if it had been bigger?
A lot of the threats humanity faces come from ourselves. If we were listing them, we’d include tribalism, greed, and the fact that we’re evolved primates, and our brains have a lot in common with animal brains. Our animalistic brains subject us to many of the same destructive emotions and impulses that animals are subject to. We wage war and become embroiled in intergenerational conflicts. There are genocides, pogroms, doomed boatloads of migrants, and horrible mashups of all three.
Isn’t humanity fun?
But not all of the threats we face are as intractable as our internal ones. Some threats are external, and we can leverage our technologies and our knowledge of nature in the struggle against them. Case in point: asteroids.
When ‘Oumuamua was first detected on October 19th, 2017, astronomers were understandably confused about the nature of this strange object. Initially thought to be an interstellar comet, it was then designated as an interstellar asteroid. But when it picked up velocity as it departed our Solar System (a very comet-like thing to do), scientists could only scratch their heads and wonder.
After much consideration, Shmuel Bialy and Professor Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) proposed that ‘Oumuamua could in fact be an artificial object (possibly an alien probe). In a more recent study, Amir Siraj and Prof. Loeb identified another (and much smaller) potential interstellar object, which they claim could be regularly colliding with Earth.
Having studies countless asteroids in near-Earth space, astronomers have come to understand that the majority of these rocks fall into one of two categories: S-type (grey) and C-type (red). These are defined by the types of materials on their surfaces, with S-type asteroids being primarily composed of silicate rock and C-type asteroids being made up of carbon materials.
However, there is also what are known as blue asteroids, which make up only a fraction of all known Near-Earth Objects (NEO). But when an international team astronomers observed the blue asteroid (3200) Phaeton during a flyby of Earth, they spotted behavior that was more consistent with a blue comet. If true, then Phaeton is of a class of objects that are so rare, they are almost unheard of.
Within near-Earth space, there are over 18,000 asteroids whose orbit occasionally brings them close to Earth. Over the course of millions of years, some of these Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – which range from a few meters to tens of kilometers in diameter – may even collide with Earth. It is for this reason that the ESA and other space agencies around the world are engaged in coordinated efforts to routinely monitor larger NEOs and track their orbits.
In addition, NASA and other space agencies have been developing counter-measures in case any of these objects stray too close to our planet in the future. One proposal is NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the world’s first spacecraft specifically designed to deflect incoming asteroids. This spacecraft recently moved into the final design and assembly phase and will launch to space in the next few years.
For decades, scientists have known that in near-Earth space there are thousands of comets and asteroids that periodically cross Earth’s orbit. These Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are routinely tracked by NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) to make sure that none pose a risk of collision with our planet. Various programs and missions have also been proposed to divert or destroy any asteroids that might pass too closely to Earth in the future.
One such mission is the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA), a collaborative effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Recently, the ESA announced that it would be withdrawing from this mission due to budget constraints. But this past Wednesday (Sept. 20th), during the European Planetary Science Conference in Riga, a group of international scientists urged them to reconsider.
This mission would be a first for scientists, and would test the capabilities of space agencies to divert rocks away from Earth’s orbit. NASA’s contribution to this mission is known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the spacecraft which would be responsible for crashing into Didymoon. Plans for this spacecraft recently entered Phase B, having met with approval, but still in need of further development.
The plan was to mount DART on an already planned commercial or military launch, and would then be placed in geosynchronous orbit between December 2020 and May 2021. It would then rely on a NEXT-C ion engine to push itself beyond the Moon and reach an escape point to depart the Earth-Moon system, eventually making its way to Didymos and Didymoon.
Europe’s contribution to the mission was known as the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which would involve sending a small craft close to Didymos to observe the crash and conduct research on the asteroid’s moon. Unfortunately, this aspect of the mission suffered a setback when space ministers from the ESA’s 22 member states rejected a €250 million ($300 million USD) request for funding last December.
However, during the European Planetary Science Congress – which will be taking place from September 17th to 22nd in the Latvian capital of Riga – scientists took the opportunity to advise the mission’s European partners to get back on board. As they emphasized, this mission – which is a dry-run for future asteroid redirect missions – is crucial if space agencies hope to develop the capacity to protect Earth from hazardous NEOs.
Andrew Cheng from JHUAPL is the project scientist for the DART mission. As he told the AFP at the European Planetary Science Congress, “This is the kind of disaster that could be a tremendous catastrophe.” He also stressed that unlike other natural disasters, an asteroid strike “is something that the world is able to defend. We can do something.”
But before that can happen, the methods need to be further developed, tested and refined. Hence why Didymoon was selected as the target for the AIDA mission. Whereas the meteor that exploded over the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in 2013 was just 20 meters across (65 feet), but still injured 1600 people, Didymoon measures about 160 meters (525 feet) in diameter.
It is estimated that if this asteroid struck Earth, the resulting impact would be as powerful as a 400 megatonne blast. To put that in perspective, the most powerful thermonuclear device ever built – the Soviet Tsar Bomba – had a yield of 50 megatonnes. Hence, the smaller companion of this binary asteroid, if it struck Earth, would have an impact 80 times greater than the most powerful bomb ever built by humans.
In addition to advocating that the ESA remain committed to the mission, European scientists at the conference also proposed an altered, more cost-effective alternative for AIM. This alternative called for a miniaturized version of the AIM craft that would be equipped with just a camera, forgoing a lander and radars designed to probe Didymoon’s internal structure.
According to Patrick Michel, the science lead for the AIM mission, this revised mission would cost about €210 million ($250 million USD). But as he also noted, this would require that the AIM part of the mission be delayed. While it would still conduct crucial measurements of Didymoon, it would not be part of the AIDA mission if NASA decides to stick with its original timeline.
“The main point of the mission was to measure the mass of the object, because this is how you really measure the deflection,” he said. “Two or three years (after impact), these things won’t change. Of course it’s better… that we have the two at the same time. But we found something I think that still works and allows to relax the very tight schedule.”
In the meantime, Jan Woerner – the head of the European Space Agency – indicated that the ESA would be moving forward with the new proposal when the next ministerial meeting takes place in 2019. As he told the AFP via email:
“It is important for humanity, as a species we have the means today to deflect an asteroid. We know it will happen, one day sooner or later. It’s not a question of if, but when. We have never tested asteroid deflection and there is no way we can test in (the) laboratory. We need to know if our models are correct, (whether) our simulations work as expected.”
In the end, it remains to be seen if the AIDA mission will see one or two missions traveling to Didymoon by 2022. Obviously, it would be better if both mission happened simultaneously, as the AIM mission will be capable of obtaining information DART will not. Much of that information has to do with with studying the effects of the collision up close and as they happen.
But regardless of how this mission unfolds, it is clear that space agencies from around the world are dedicated to developing techniques for protecting Earth from asteroids that pose a collision hazard. Between NASA, the ESA, and their many institutional partners and private contractors, multiple methods are being developed to divert or destroy oncoming space rocks before they hit us.
However, I’m pretty sure not one of them involves sending a bunch of miners with minimal training into space to plant a nuke inside an asteroid. That would just be silly on its face!
And be sure to check out this video that details the AIDA and Asteroid Impact Mission, courtesy of ESA:
Of the more than 600,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, almost 10 000 are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). These are asteroids or comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth’s, and which could potentially collide with us at some point in the future. As such, monitoring these objects is a vital part of NASA’s ongoing efforts in space. One such mission is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which has been active since December 2013.
And now, after two years of study, the information gathered by the mission is being released to the public. This included, most recently, NEOWISE’s second year of survey data, which accounted for 72 previously unknown objects that orbit near to our planet. Of these, eight were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth.
On October 6th, 2013, the Catalina Sky Survey discovered a small asteroid which was later designated as 2013 TX68. As part Apollo group this 30 meter (100 ft) rock is one of many Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that periodically crosses Earth’s orbit and passes close to our planet. A few years ago, it did just that, flying by our planet at a safe distance of about 2 million km (1.3 million miles).
And according to NASA’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it will be passing us again in a few weeks time, specifically between March 2nd and 6th. Of course, asteroids pass Earth by on a regular basis, and there is very rarely any cause for alarm. However, there is some anxiety about 2013 TX68’s latest flyby, mainly because its distance could be subject to some serious variation.
We can’t just go into space with a big butterfly net or catcher’s mitt, so how in the world could we capture an asteroid?
Ah asteroids, those dinosaur-killing, Scrooge-McDuck-moneybins from heaven.
They’re great and all, but you know what would be better? All the asteroids gathered up and put in a nice safe orbit where we harvest out all their precious sweet, juicy platinum cores.
Instead of nervously scanning the heavens, wishing we had more iridium at our disposal, we could seek out all the asteroids in the Solar System and push them somewhere we can get at them, whenever we want after we dump them into the orbital equivalent of a lazy susan.
Okay fine, instead of pushing all the asteroids around, maybe we should start with one. Get that right and we can extend our plans to the rest of the delicious space rocks we crave.
I know this sounds like just another pie in the sky “Fraser-Cain-double-plus-crazy” plan, but I’m not the only one to propose this idea. In fact, NASA has expressed plans to reach out and capture an asteroid and maybe put it into orbit around Earth.
There are many benefits to this plan. We’ll learn just how hard it is to move asteroids around, should we find one on a dangerous trajectory. We’ll learn how to land on an asteroid, and extract its precious resources. And of course, there’s the science. So much to learn from a pet asteroid. Also, if anyone ticks us off we can lop off clumps and hurl it at them. So a dinosaur killing space rock, returned safely to Earth? That sounds a little dangerous. Possibly a species-wide Darwin awards moment.
How exactly does one capture an asteroid, and how could we move it back to Earth without killing us all, and more importantly will the Aliens have Darwin awards when we accidentally wipe ourselves out? This sounds like a job for BRUCE WILLIS.
As you may suspect, scientists have come up with a vast collection of clever ideas to move asteroids around. They all come down to the same challenge. You somehow need to impart a thrust to an asteroid. NASA has also informed me that involving Bruce Willis is optional, despite my insistence and extensive letter writing campaign.
One basic idea would be to fly down to the asteroid and install some kind of thruster on it. Perhaps an efficient ion engine, or a rail gun that throws off chunks of rock into space, imparting a thrust to the asteroid. The problem is that asteroids are often spinning, so you’d need to stop that rotation before you could fire up the thrusters.
Another idea would be to set off nuclear explosions nearby and just push it in the right direction with raw explosive power. By setting off the nuke close enough to the asteroid’s surface, you expel vaporized rock, which acts like a thruster. Also known as the “Ben Affleck Special”.
This one’s going to sound crazy, but scientists are serious. Airbags. You could bump a large inflated bag against the asteroid again and again to slowly nudge it in the direction you want. The rotation doesn’t really matter because the time you contact the asteroid is so brief.
Don’t like that? How about a gravity tractor? Now I’ve got your attention! You could fly a spacecraft really close to the asteroid, which would then attract it slowly, pulling it in the direction you like. As long as the spacecraft keeps thrusting away from the asteroid, you’ll keep pulling it along like a kite on a string.
These are just some of the big ideas. Scientists have proposed some sort of one sided space graffiti, painting them silver, possibly attaching solar sails, or even vaporizing rock with lasers to provide thrust.
There’s another idea which deserves mention, and I’m going to warn you right now, it’s pretty terrifying. It’s called aerobraking. Instead of using energy to slow the asteroid and put it into the perfect orbit, we use the Earth’s atmosphere to help asteroids shed a tremendous amount of velocity.
By allowing an asteroid to pass briefly – briefly! – through the atmosphere of the Earth, you could decelerate it significantly. Make a few of these passes and you should be able to get it into a nice safe orbit around Earth. Of course, get it wrong and you crash an asteroid into Earth. So, there’s that. It would absolutely make a mess of our lawn, and we’d be the laughing stock of the local group.
Asteroids are precious resources, just waiting for us to reach out and harvest their minerals. Fortunately, we’ve got a range of strategies we can use to move them around. One of them has got to work… right?
Which idea for moving an asteroid do you like the best? Which one really freaks you out?
The WISE spacecraft has completed a special mission called NEOWISE, looking for small bodies in the solar system, and has discovered a plethora of previously unknown objects. The NEOWISE mission found 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs). More data from NEOWISE also have the potential to reveal a brown dwarf even closer to us than our closest known star, Proxima Centauri, if such an object does exist. Likewise, if there is a hidden gas-giant planet in the outer reaches of our solar system, data from WISE and NEOWISE could detect it.
“WISE has unearthed a mother lode of amazing sources, and we’re having a great time figuring out their nature,” said Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of WISE at UCLA.
“Even just one year of observations from the NEOWISE project has significantly increased our catalog of data on NEOs and the other small bodies of the solar systems,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s program executive for the NEO Observation Program.
The NEOs are asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 45 million kilometers (28 million miles) of Earth’s path around the sun.
The NEOWISE mission made use of the the WISE spacecraft, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer that launched in December 2009. WISE scanned the entire celestial sky in infrared light about 1.5 times. It captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets close to Earth.
However, in early October 2010, after completing its prime science mission, the spacecraft ran out of the frozen coolant that keeps its instrumentation cold. But two of its four infrared cameras remained operational, which were still optimal for asteroid hunting, so NASA extended the NEOWISE portion of the WISE mission by four months, with the primary purpose of hunting for more asteroids and comets, and to finish one complete scan of the main asteroid belt.
Now that NEOWISE has successfully completed a full sweep of the main asteroid belt, the WISE spacecraft will go into hibernation mode and remain in polar orbit around Earth, where it could be called back into service in the future.
In addition to discovering new asteroids and comets, NEOWISE also confirmed the presence of objects in the main belt that had already been detected. In just one year, it observed about 153,000 rocky bodies out of approximately 500,000 known objects. Those include the 33,000 that NEOWISE discovered.
NEOWISE also observed known objects closer and farther to us than the main belt, including roughly 2,000 asteroids that orbit along with Jupiter, hundreds of NEOs and more than 100 comets.
These observations will be key to determining the objects’ sizes and compositions. Visible-light data alone reveal how much sunlight reflects off an asteroid, whereas infrared data is much more directly related to the object’s size. By combining visible and infrared measurements, astronomers also can learn about the compositions of the rocky bodies — for example, whether they are solid or crumbly. The findings will lead to a much-improved picture of the various asteroid populations.
NEOWISE took longer to survey the whole asteroid belt than WISE took to scan the entire sky because most of the asteroids are moving in the same direction around the sun as the spacecraft moves while it orbits Earth. The spacecraft field of view had to catch up to, and lap, the movement of the asteroids in order to see them all.
“You can think of Earth and the asteroids as racehorses moving along in a track,” said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re moving along together around the sun, but the main belt asteroids are like horses on the outer part of the track. They take longer to orbit than us, so we eventually lap them.”
NEOWISE data on the asteroid and comet orbits are catalogued at the NASA-funded International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, a clearinghouse for information about all solar system bodies at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The science team is analyzing the infrared observations now and will publish new findings in the coming months.
The first batch of observations from the WISE mission will be available to the public and astronomical community in April.