The “experts” told us all along that Asteroid 2012 DA14 was not going to collide with earth. Nope. Not a chance. It won’t even disturb our communications satellites as it whizzes through their orbits.
But didn’t DA14 make you just a little nervous? Didn’t you wake up last Thursday and think hey – 17,000 miles is just not that far away! It’s like flying from New York to Sydney and back. And it’s 5,000 miles closer than the satellite that feeds my Direct TV dish.
And then you turn on your computer and see all the images coming from central Russia from an event that NASA described as a “tiny asteroid” that created a blast that was equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT. Wasn’t this all just a little too close for comfort? But as good Americans, we trust authority, and we trust that someone is looking out for us on a planetary scale, so we go on with our busy day.
But if you do just a little research on your own, your confidence will start to whither. “Asteroid Impact Avoidance” is a good phrase to start with in your search engine. You’ll discover that most articles start with what size asteroid will cause extinction-level damage to our biosphere. Then in the next paragraph or so, you’ll be assured that the threat isn’t any more substantial than it was yesterday, and that modern technology has opened up new options to prevent such an event.
Then you’ll read about all these new “options.” Current strategies seem to fall into two categories: destroy or delay – both will require years of warning in order to design, test and build. Destroy is self explanatory, using nuclear bombs or kinetic impactors to fragment an asteroid into pieces that will either miss the earth or burn up in the atmosphere. Delay strategies sound more promising and involve delaying (or advancing) the arrival of an asteroid by seven minutes (the time it takes the earth to travel the distance of one planetary diameter). Delay strategies include things like gravity tractors, rockets, mass drivers and laser cannons – all of which must be flown near the asteroid in order to push it a little off course.
During all my research, I didn’t find an actual “solution” that is parked on a launch pad and ready to go. All I found were projects, either existing or planned, that will find and catalog all of the tens of thousands of objects that are big enough to cross Earth’s orbit and do substantial damage. But I even question how successful the last 20 years of cataloging have proven to be, considering that DA14 was discovered by a dentist in Spain only a year ago, and nobody at all saw the Russian asteroid coming. Maybe we need to keep cataloging but also spend some money on a real solution.
Personally, I’d sleep a whole lot better knowing that there was a gravity tractor strapped to an atlas rocket somewhere – tested, gassed up and ready to go. But until then, I guess we’ll all just have to just count on Bruce Willis to save the day. I hope someone has his phone number handy.