White House Adviser: US Must Prepare for Asteroid
(Oct. 25) -- If an asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, would we be ready to defend against its destructive impact or would we be helpless and defenseless?
NASA, America's space agency, is being charged with leading the way to protect not only the U.S. but the entire world in the event of such a horrifying scenario. And a top White House science adviser says we have to be prepared.
In separate 10-page letters to the House Committee on Science and Technology and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, outlines plans for "(A) protecting the United States from a near-Earth object that is expected to collide with Earth; and (B) implementing a deflection campaign, in consultation with international bodies, should one be necessary."
The White House has asked Congress to consider how to best deal with the potential threat to Earth of an impact with an asteroid from space.
While Holdren indicates that no large asteroid or comet presents an immediate hazard to our planet, the fact that devastating impacts have occurred on Earth in the distant past is enough to warrant safety precautions for the future.
"Indeed, a steady stream of these objects enters the Earth's atmosphere on a daily basis, consisting mostly of dust-sized particles and estimated to total some 50 to 150 tons each day," Holdren wrote.
As remote as it may seem that Earth could be the target of a giant rock from space, nevertheless, Holdren insists that "the possibility of a future collision involving a more hazardous object should not be ignored."
Asteroids are rocky bodies found within the inner solar system, originating in an area known as the asteroid belt, located between the planets Mars and Jupiter.
If a large asteroid were to strike Earth, it could cause a global climate change, which many scientists believe is what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago -- not a good prospect for life on Earth in the present day if a similar event occurred.
NASA's Near Earth Object program, or NEO, looks for and monitors asteroids that are at least a kilometer in diameter.
But, as Holdren points out, one problem in the search is that "the orbits of known objects can be changed by gravitational or solar radiation perturbations, or even collisions with other objects, meaning that periodic monitoring of known NEOs must also be conducted."
Numerous movies have depicted the devastation caused by an asteroid collision with Earth, including "Meteor" (1979), "Deep Impact" (1998) and "Armageddon" (1998).
After 12 years of cosmic hunting, NASA search teams have determined that 149 NEOs larger than a kilometer in size are in orbits that might pose a problem for Earth, but none is considered an impact threat in the next 100 years.
The White House OSTP office is working to establish plans and procedures in the event of a possible NEO threat to America.
One of those plans involves using the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the Department of Homeland Security, to handle responsibilities on the ground regarding an NEO threat.
After an asteroid-to-Earth trajectory is determined to impact an area of the U.S., FEMA would notify the population through the National Warning System and it would begin emergency response activities.
Holdren's letter also indicates the importance of notifying other countries of an impending asteroid strike "in an effort to minimize the potential loss of life and property."
And there's the hope that, if an asteroid becomes an actual threat to our planet, a plan would be implemented to try to somehow either destroy the rock or deflect it off course.
Holdren suggests to Congress that NASA and the Department of Defense should work together to devise any strategy that would involve the military.
So the good news is that high-level discussions are on the plate as to how Earth can defend itself against the onslaught of a potential disaster from space.
The bad news: There's no plan set up yet. For the time being, we're staying out of harm's way.
Here is the entire text of Holdren's letter to Congress.
Small Asteroid to Give Earth a Close Shave
SPACE.com Managing Editor
SPACE.com – Tue Nov 16, 4:45 pm ET
This story was updated at 4:32 p.m. ET.
A tiny asteroid will zip close by Earth tonight (Nov. 16) at a range much closer than the moon, but poses no threat of striking our planet or even entering the atmosphere, NASA has announced.
The asteroid 2010 WA will pass Earth at 10:44 p.m. EST (0344 GMT), missing the planet by about 24,000 miles (38,000 kilometers), NASA's asteroid-watching team wrote on Twitter. It is nearly 10 feet (3 meters wide), so small it would simply break apart if it encountered Earth's atmosphere.
NASA officials said the asteroid is a "very small space rock" that will pass the Earth at roughly one-tenth the distance between our planet and the moon, according to NASA's AsteroidWatch Twitter feed. [5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids]
On average, the moon is about roughly 238,900 miles (384,402 km) from Earth. Some of the highest satellites above Earth fly in geostationary positions about 22,370 miles (36,000 km) up. The International Space Station sails through space about 220 miles (354 km) above Earth.
Asteroid 2010 WA is the fourth space rock in as many months to buzz harmlessly by the Earth within the moon's orbit. The asteroid 2010 TD54 passed the planet at nearly the same miss distance on Oct. 12. In September, a rare sighting of two asteroids – called 2010 RX30 and 2010 RF12 – was spotted when they both passed within the moon's orbit on the same day (Sept. 8).
Like 2010 WA, those earlier asteroid flybys posed no threat to Earth and most were small enough that they would burn up in the atmosphere if they hit it.
"Still, a good practice in detection," NASA's asteroid-tracking team wrote of 2010 WA on Twitter.
An asteroid about 16.5 feet (5 meters) across can be expected to pass Earth inside the orbit of the moon about once a day, NASA scientists have said. They typically enter Earth's atmosphere about once every two years, they added.
Bigger asteroids of about 460 feet (140 meters) wide can cause widespread damage around their impact sites. But much larger space rocks would have to strike Earth to cause global devastation.
There are an estimated 30 million unknown asteroids in our solar system, NASA has said.
Asteroid 2010 WA is not even the first space rock to slip by the Earth-moon system this month.
On Nov. 9, the small asteroid 2010 VL65 passed the Earth at a range of 610,000 miles (980,000 km) – about 2 1/2 times the distance between our planet and moon, NASA officials said. That asteroid was only 23 feet (7 meters) across – small enough to burn up completely in the atmosphere – and was only visible to seasoned skywatchers with telescopes.
NASA routinely tracks asteroids and comets that fly near Earth as part of its Near-Earth Object Observations program, which uses a network of ground and space telescopes to monitor the space rock environment around the planet. To date, the program has tracked about 85 percent of the largest asteroids that fly near Earth and 15 percent of asteroids in the 460-foot class, according to the latest report.
The U.S. space agency also plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 under a space plan ordered by President Obama. The mission could help scientists better understand the composition of asteroids, as well as develop better methods of deflecting them before they pose a threat to Earth, agency officials have said.
NASA Is Running Out of Money to Monitor Earth-Destroying Asteroids (Part 1 of 2)
Michio Kaku on September 7, 2010, 11:14 PM
NASA is in a catch 22 situation. Five years ago, Congress mandated by law that NASA should track 90% of all of the dangerous asteroids and comets that may threaten the Earth by 2020. Just last month, though, the National Academy of Sciences announced that NASA may be out of money to meet this mandate. I think it would be short sighted and unwise not to fund NASA's continued monitoring of extraterrestrial objects that could potentially destroy all life on Earth.
I go back to the perception that Hollywood has gave us all these years in the movies. Anyone who has watched films like Armageddon gets the impression that there are all kinds of tracking stations and professional astronomers combing the skies looking for these dangerous objects. Well, not so fast; in reality, most researchers are in fact amateurs who do the thankless job of hauling out their telescopes on a cold night and taking pictures of the sky and comparing it to the previous days photographs.
On July 19th, an impact mark on Jupiter was spotted by an amateur astronomer in Australia which “drew the attention of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the change in Jupiter’s south polar region." NASA posted both images and explanations on their website, and stated: “Following up on a tip by an amateur astronomer, Anthony Wesley of Australia, that a new dark 'scar' had suddenly appeared on Jupiter, this morning between 3 and 9 a.m. PDT (6 a.m. and noon EDT) scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, gathered evidence indicating an impact.“
This just goes to show that incidents like these have in fact caught us off guard where no one necessarily knew that it was going to happen. If you compare this incident to the Shoemaker-Levy comet, for example, there was warning, and it was tracked by both professional astronomers and amateurs alike. This time, the astronomical community was in a sense caught with its pants down because we only saw the end result (the point of impact) and we still don’t know if it was a comet or a meteor. The object that hit Jupiter is probably less than a mile across (if it’s similar to the Shoemaker-Levy comet). However, the fireball the was created by the impact was nearly the size of the Earth—or it least the size of the Pacific Ocean—and so it’s humbling to realize that even small objects can create enormous destruction.
For example, the Meteor Crater in Arizona was formed about 50,000 years ago and is about 4,000 ft in diameter with some areas reaching 570 feet deep and is surrounded by a rim that rises over 100 feet above the surrounding plains. Based on recent research, the impact was substantially slower than originally thought (about 28,000 mph) and itis believed that about half of the impact’s 330,000 short tons bulk was vaporized during descent before it actually hit the ground.
NASA Is Running Out of Money to Monitor Earth-Destroying Asteroids (Part 2 of 2)
Michio Kaku on September 8, 2010, 7:06 PM
So let’s now speak about the future. You may have heard about the asteroid Apophis, which is about the size of the Rose Bowl Stadium. It’s said that the large asteroid will streak by the Earth sometime around 2029. The NASA website states that “The future for Apophis on Friday, April 13 of 2029 includes an approach to Earth no closer than 29,470 km (18,300 miles, or 5.6 Earth radii from the center, or 4.6 Earth-radii from the surface) over the mid-Atlantic, appearing to the naked eye as a moderately bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. Depending on its mechanical nature, it could experience shape or spin-state alteration due to tidal forces caused by Earth's gravity field... Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036, Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).”
We are also amazed at the meteor showers when we are able to see them. The local news usually let’s you know when you will be able to catch a glimpse and you will find all kinds of people running outside to peer at the night sky. Perhaps one of the most famous meteor showers took place in 1833, the Leonid meteor shower (image below). This particular shower gave us several hundred thousand streaks per hour across the night sky. It was so brilliant and awe-inspiring that several religious cults can in some sense trace their lineage to the panic that was created as a result of this particular shower. So, speaking about the doom and gloom and mysticism surrounding these things, you may remember when Hale Bopp sailed through the heavens when we heard about the famed “Doomsday Cult” that believed the comet was a sign ofthe Second Coming. The cult believed that they were going to be beamed up to a flying saucer which they thought was on that comet and the members all ended up committing suicide as a result. This just goes to show that these types of things really stir deep seated fears andemotions in people.
If you caught my Second Season premiere of my show Sci-Fi Science on the Science Channel which aired September 1, you would have seen an episode called Earth 2.0 which shows that the future of the human race may be the destruction that we fear here on Earth. The episode went into detail about the process of terraforming Mars, and featured ideas from Chris McKay, a NASA research scientist and even Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society. Chris McKay of NASA suggested the possibility of building huge solar mirrors the size of Texas to melt the Martian ice caps, and I even went into detail about how we could possibly heat up Mars by shooting asteroids at the planet’s surface essentially jump-starting the terraforming process. First, the heat ofthe impact would be that of millions of atomic bombs which would heat up the surface. Second, asteroids contain frozen gases which would help to thicken the atmosphere and finally set off a runaway greenhouse effect.