06 March 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Asteroid Defense


Today, Mars is bone-dry; it once had running water. "Something bad happened there as well," he says. "Asteroids have us in our sight. The dinosaurs didn't have a space program, so they're not here to talk about this problem. We are, and we have the power to do something about it. I don't want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy, to have had the power to deflect an asteroid, and then not, and end up going extinct. We'd be the laughing stock of the aliens of the cosmos if that were the case."

The possibility of asteroids hitting Earth is actually a reasonably serious problem that does need a solution, Tyson contends. The asteroid Apophis, named for the Egyptian god of death and darkness, has a very slim chance of striking Earth in 2036. Tyson says some researchers have advocated for blowing up the football stadium-sized object.
That could create a bigger problem, though: "If you blow it up and it becomes two pieces, and now one is aimed for each coast of the United States, it's just doubled the emergency status of that call," he says.
Another option is what he calls a "gravitational tractor beam." A space probe would be parked a fixed distance away from the asteroid. Gravity would tend to pull the objects together, but by firing rockets on the probe, the asteroid would actually be "towed" away.
Tyson admits that such a space tow truck would be a tough sell for a president asking for more money for NASA.