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.
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.
Within Earth’s orbit, there are an estimated eighteen-thousands Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), objects whose orbit periodically takes them close to Earth. Because these asteroids sometimes make close flybys to Earth – and have collided with Earth in the past – they are naturally seen as a potential hazard. For this reason, scientists are dedicated to tracking NEAs, as well as studying their origin and evolution.
Some might say it’s paranoid to think about an asteroid hitting Earth and wiping us out. But the history of life on Earth shows at least 5 major extinctions. And at least one of them, about 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid.
Preparing for an asteroid strike, or rather preparing to prevent one, is rational thinking at its finest. Especially now that we can see all the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) out there. The chances of any single asteroid striking Earth may be small, but collectively, with over 15,000 NEAs catalogued by NASA, it may be only a matter of time until one comes for us. In fact, space rocks strike Earth every day, but they’re too small to cause any harm. It’s the ones large enough to do serious damage that concern NASA.
NASA has been thinking about the potential for an asteroid strike on Earth for a long time. They even have an office dedicated to it, called the Office of Planetary Defense, and minds there have been putting a lot of thought into detecting hazardous asteroids, and deflecting or destroying any that pose a threat to Earth.
One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER is just a concept right now, but it’s worth talking about. It involves the use of a nuclear weapon to destroy any asteroid heading our way.
The use of a nuclear weapon to destroy or deflect an asteroid seems a little risky at first glance. They’re really a weapon of last resort here on Earth, because of their potential to wreck the biosphere. But out in space, there is no biosphere. If scientists sound a little glib when talking about HAMMER, the reality is they’re not. It makes perfect sense. In fact, it may be the only sensible use for a nuclear weapon.
The idea behind HAMMER is pretty simple; it’s a spacecraft with an 8.8 ton tip. The tip is either a nuclear weapon, or an 8.8 ton kinetic impactor. Once we detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, we use space-based and ground-based systems to ascertain its size. If its small enough, then HAMMER will not require the nuclear option. Just striking a small asteroid with sufficient mass will divert it away from Earth.
If the incoming asteroid is larger, or if we don’t detect it early enough, then the nuclear option is chosen. HAMMER would be launched with an atomic warhead on it, and the incoming offender would be destroyed. It sounds like a pretty tidy solution, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
A lot depends on the size of the object and when it’s detected. If we’re threatened by an object we’ve been aware of for a long time, then we might have a pretty good idea of its size, and of its trajectory. In that case, we can likely divert it with a kinetic impactor.
But for larger objects, we might require a fleet of impactors already in space, ready to be sent on a collision course. Or we might use the nuclear option. The ER in HAMMER stands for Emergency Response for a reason. If we don’t have enough time to plan or respond, then a system like HAMMER could be built and launched relatively quickly. (In this scenario, relatively quickly means years, not months.)
One of the problems is with the asteroids themselves. They have different orbits and trajectories, and the time to travel to different NEO‘s can vary widely. And things in space aren’t static. We share a region of space with a lot of moving rocks, and their trajectories can change as a result of gravitational interactions with other bodies. Also, as we learned from the arrival of Oumuamua last year, not all threats will be from our own Solar System. Some will take us by surprise. How will we deal with those? Could we deploy HAMMER quickly enough?
Another cautionary factor around using nukes to destroy asteroids is the risk of fracturing them into multiple pieces without destroying them. If an object larger than 1 km in diameter threatened Earth, and we aimed a nuclear warhead at it but didn’t destroy it, what would we do? How would we deal with one or more fragments heading towards Earth?
HAMMER and the whole issue of dealing with threatening asteroids is a complicated business. We’ll have to prepare somehow, and have a plan and systems in place for preventing collisions. But our best bet might lie in better detection.
We’ve gotten a lot better at detecting Near Earth Objects,(NEOs), Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs), and Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) lately. We have telescopes and projects dedicated to cataloguing them, like Pan-STARRS, which discovered Oumuamua. And in the next few years, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come online, boosting our detection capabilities even further.
It’s not just extinctions that we need to worry about. Asteroids also have the potential to cause massive climate change, disrupt our geopolitical order, and generally de-stabilize everything going on down here on Earth. At some point in time, an object capable of causing massive damage will speed toward us, and we’ll either need HAMMER, or another system like it, to protect ourselves and the planet.
This coming October, an asteroid will fly by Earth. Known as 2012 TC4, this small rock is believed to measure between 10 and 30 meters (30 and 100 feet) in size. As with most asteroids, this one is expected to sail safely past Earth without incident. This will take place on October 12th, when the asteroid will pass us at a closest estimated distance of 6,800 kilometers (4,200 miles) from Earth’s surface.
That’s certainly good news. But beyond the fact that it does not pose a threat to Earth, NASA is also planning on using the occasion to test their new detection and tracking network. As part of their Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), this network is responsible for detecting and tracking asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth, which are known as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs)
In addition to relying on data provided by NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program. the PDCO also coordinates NEO observations conducted by National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored ground-based observatories, as well as space situational awareness facilities run by the US Air Force. Aside from finding and tracking PHOs, the PDCO is also responsible for coming up with ways of deflecting and redirecting them.
The PDCO was officially created in response to the NASA Office of Inspector General’s 2014 report, titled “NASA’s Efforts to Identify Near-Earth Objects and Mitigate Hazards.” Citing such events as the Chelyabinsk meteor, and how such events are relatively common, the report indicated that coordination, early warning and mitigation strategies were needed for the future:
“[I]n February 2013 an 18-meter (59 foot) meteor exploded 14.5 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, with the force of 30 atomic bombs, blowing out windows, destroying buildings, injuring more than 1,000 people, and raining down fragments along its trajectory… Recent research suggests that Chelyabinsk-type events occur every 30 to 40 years, with a greater likelihood of impact in the ocean than over populated areas, while impacts from objects greater than a mile in diameter are predicted only once every several hundred thousand years.”
The PDCO was established in 2016, which makes this upcoming flyby the first chance they will have to test their network of observatories and scientists dedicated to planetary defense. Michael Kelley is the program scientist and the NASA Headquarters lead for the TC4 observation campaign, which has been monitoring 2012 TC4 for years. As he said in a recent NASA press statement:
“Scientists have always appreciated knowing when an asteroid will make a close approach to and safely pass the Earth because they can make preparations to collect data to characterize and learn as much as possible about it. This time we are adding in another layer of effort, using this asteroid flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid threat.”
In addition, the flyby will be an opportunity to reacquire 2012 TC4, which astronomers lost track of in 2012 when it moved beyond the range of their telescopes. For this reason, people like Professor Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona are also excited. A member of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Reddy also leads the campaign to reacquire the asteroid. As he indicated, this flyby will be a chance for collaborative observation.
“This is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities and labs across the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our near-Earth object observation capabilities,” he said. “This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications.”
2012 TC4 was originally discovered on Oct. 5th, 2012, by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii. After it sped past Earth in that same year, it has not been directly observed since. And while it is slightly larger than the meteor that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, scientists are certain that it will pass us by at a safe distance.
This is based on tracking data that was collected by scientists from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). After monitoring 2012 TC4 for a period of seven days after it was discovered in 2012, they determined that at its closest approach, the asteroid will pass no closer than 6,800 km (4,200 mi) to Earth. However, it is more likely that it will pass us at distance of about 270,000 km (170,000 mi).
This would place it at a distance that is about two-thirds the distance between the Earth and the Moon. The last time this asteroid passed Earth, it did so at a distance that was one-quarter the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Therefore, the odds of it passing by without incident are even greater this time around. So rather than representing a threat, the passage of this asteroid represents a good chance for research.
As Paul Chodas, the manager of the CNEOS at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stated:
“This is the perfect target for such an exercise because while we know the orbit of 2012 TC4 well enough to be absolutely certain it will not impact Earth, we haven’t established its exact path just yet. It will be incumbent upon the observatories to get a fix on the asteroid as it approaches, and work together to obtain follow-up observations than make more refined asteroid orbit determinations possible.”
By monitoring 2012 TC4 as it flies by, astronomers will be able to refine their knowledge about the asteroid’s orbit, which will help them to predict and calculate future flybys with even greater precision. This will further mitigate the risk posed by PHOs down the road, and help the PDCO to develop and test strategies to address possible future impacts.
In short, remain calm! This flyby is a good thing!
The International Space Station has provided astronauts and space agencies with immense opportunities for research during the decade and a half that it has been in operation. In addition to studies involving meteorology, space weather, materials science, and medicine, missions aboard the ISS has also provided us with valuable insight into human biology.
For example, studies conducted aboard the ISS’ have provided us with information about the effects of long-term exposure to microgravity. And all the time, astronauts are pushing the limits of how long someone can healthily remain living under such conditions. One such astronauts is Jeff Williams, the Expedition 48 commander who recently established a new record for most time spent in space.
This record-breaking feat began back in 2000, when Williams spent 10 days aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-101. At the time, the International Space Station was still under construction, and as the mission’s flight engineer and spacewalker, Williams helped prepare the station for its first crew.
This was followed up in 2006, where Williams’ served as part of Expedition 13 to the ISS. The station had grown significantly at this point with the addition of Russian Zvezda service module, the U.S. Destiny laboratory, and the Quest airlock. Numerous science experiments were also being conducted at this time, which included studies into capillary flow and the effects of microgravity on astronauts’ central nervous systems.
During the six months he was aboard the station, Williams was able to get in two more spacewalks, set up additional experiments on the station’s exterior, and replaced equipment. Three years later, he would return to the station as part of Expedition 21, then served as the commander of Expedition 22, staying aboard the station for over a year (May 27th, 2009 to March 18th, 2010).
By the time Expedition 48’s Soyuz capsule launched to rendezvous with the ISS on July 7th, 2016, Williams had already spent more than 362 days in space. By the time he returns to Earth on Sept. 6th, he will have spent a cumulative total of 534 days in space. He will have also surpassed the previous record set by Scott Kelly, who spent 520 days in space over the course of four missions.
On Wednesday, August 24th, the International Space Station raised its orbit ahead of Williams’ departure. Once he and two of his mission colleagues – Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin – undock in their Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft, they begin their descent towards Kazakhstan, arriving on Earth roughly three and a half hours later.
Former astronaut Scott Kelly was a good sport about the passing of this record, congratulating Williams in a video created by the Johnson Space Center (see below). Luckily, Kelly still holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut – which lasted a stunning 340 days.
And Williams may not hold the record for long, as astronaut Peggy Whitson is scheduled to surpass him in 2017 during her next mission (which launches this coming November). And as we push farther out into space in the coming years, mounting missions to NEOs and Mars, this record is likely to be broken again and again.
In the meantime, Williams and his crew will continue to dedicate their time to a number of crucial experiments. In the course of this mission, they have conducted research into human heart function, plant growth in microgravity, and executed a variety of student-designed experiments.
Like all research conducted aboard the ISS, the results of this research will be used to improve health treatments, have numerous industrial applications here on Earth, and will help NASA plan mission farther into space. Not the least of which will be NASA’s proposed (and rapidly approaching) crewed mission to Mars.
In addition to spending several months in zero-g for the sake of the voyage, NASA will need to know how their astronauts will fair when conducting research on the surface of Mars, where the gravity is roughly 37% that of Earth (0.376 g to be exact).
And be sure to enjoy this video of Scott Kelly congratulating Williams on his accomplishment, courtesy of the Johnson Space Center:
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.
No, it’s not the Universe Puzzle No. 3; rather, it’s an intriguing result from recent work into the strange shapes and composition of small asteroids.
Images sent back from space missions suggest that smaller asteroids are not pristine chunks of rock, but are instead covered in rubble that ranges in size from meter-sized boulders to flour-like dust. Indeed some asteroids appear to be up to 50% empty space, suggesting that they could be collections of rubble with no solid core.
But how do these asteroids form and evolve? And if we ever have to deflect one, to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs, how to do so without breaking it up, and making the danger far greater?
Johannes Diderik van der Waals (1837-1923), with a little help from Daniel Scheeres, Michael Swift, and colleagues, to the rescue.
Asteroids tend to spin rapidly on their axes – and gravity at the surface of smaller bodies can be one thousandth or even one millionth of that on Earth. As a result scientists are left wondering how the rubble clings on to the surface. “The few images that we have of asteroid surfaces are a challenge to understand using traditional geophysics,” University of Colorado’s Scheeres explained.
To get to the bottom of this mystery, the team – Daniel Scheeres, colleagues at the University of Colorado, and Michael Swift at the University of Nottingham – made a thorough study of the relevant forces involved in binding rubble to an asteroid. The formation of small bodies in space involves gravity and cohesion – the latter being the attraction between molecules at the surface of materials. While gravity is well understood, the nature of the cohesive forces at work in the rubble and their relative strengths is much less well known.
The team assumed that the cohesive forces between grains are similar to that found in “cohesive powders” – which include bread flour – because such powders resemble what has been seen on asteroid surfaces. To gauge the significance of these forces, the team considered their strength relative to the gravitational forces present on a small asteroid where gravity at the surface is about one millionth that on Earth. The team found that gravity is an ineffective binding force for rocks observed on smaller asteroids. Electrostatic attraction was also negligible, other than where a portion of the asteroid this is illuminated by the Sun comes into contact with a dark portion.
Fast backward to the mid-19th century, a time when the existence of molecules was controversial, and inter-molecular forces pure science fiction (except, of course, that there was no such thing then). Van der Waals’ doctoral thesis provided a powerful explanation for the transition between gaseous and liquid phases, in terms of weak forces between the constituent molecules, which he assumed have a finite size (more than half a century was to pass before these forces were understood, quantitatively, in terms of quantum mechanics and atomic theory).
Van der Waals forces – weak electrostatic attractions between adjacent atoms or molecules that arise from fluctuations in the positions of their electrons – seem to do the trick for particles that are less than about one meter in size. The size of the van der Waals force is proportional to the contact surface area of a particle – unlike gravity, which is proportional to the mass (and therefore volume) of the particle. As a result, the relative strength of van der Waals compared with gravity increases as the particle gets smaller.
This could explain, for example, recent observations by Scheeres and colleagues that small asteroids are covered in fine dust – material that some scientists thought would be driven away by solar radiation. The research can also have implications on how asteroids respond to the “YORP effect” – the increase of the angular velocity of small asteroids by the absorption of solar radiation. As the bodies spin faster, this recent work suggests that they would expel larger rocks while retaining smaller ones. If such an asteroid were a collection of rubble, the result could be an aggregate of smaller particles held together by van der Waals forces.
Asteroid expert Keith Holsapple of the University of Washington is impressed that not only has Scheeres’ team estimated the forces in play on an asteroid, it has also looked at how these vary with asteroid and particle size. “This is a very important paper that addresses a key issue in the mechanics of the small bodies of the solar system and particle mechanics at low gravity,” he said.
Scheeres noted that testing this theory requires a space mission to determine the mechanical and strength properties of an asteroid’s surface. “We are developing such a proposal now,” he said.
Source: Physics World. “Scaling forces to asteroid surfaces: The role of cohesion” is a preprint by Scheeres, et al. (arXiv:1002.2478), submitted for publication in Icarus.