Scientists say the time has come to get serious about defending the planet
PHILADELPHIA - So far, thank heavens, no doomsday-size asteroid or comet has been found heading straight for us. The bad news, however, is that they
don't make bulletproof vests for planets.Electronic Telegraph International News Friday 13 March 1998 Issue 1022
Asteroid may spell doom for human civilisation
By Aisling Irwin, Science Correspondent
AN asteroid capable of destroying civilisation may be on a collision course with Earth, astronomers said yesterday.
The asteroid will pass very close to Earth in 30 years' time. If it hits, the collision will be at 6.30pm GMT on Thursday, Oct 26 2028. However,
experts' predictions of the chance of a collision varied widely.
Don Yeomans, of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is viewed by many as the world's leading expert on planetary orbits,
said the chance was "zero". Others said it was one in 1,000.
Astronomers agreed, however, that the asteroid, 1997 XF11, is most likely to zoom past at a distance of 30,000 miles - an eighth of the distance to
"This is big," said Brian Marsden, of the International Astronomical Union, which announced the discovery of XF11 yesterday. "We have never had
experience of anything this big. The chance of an actual collision is small, but one is not entirely out of the question."
Benny Peiser, a specialist in the effects of cosmic debris at Liverpool John Moores University, said: "The effect of a one-mile-wide object hitting
the Earth would be catastrophic on a global scale. It would not necessarily lead to the extinction of animals or humans but it would have a tremendous
Dr Peiser, a member of the pressure group Spaceguard UK which wants an international monitoring programme to spot dangerous comets and asteroids,
said: "I don't think this asteroid will hit Earth. But a collision with one of that size would wipe out civilisation as we know it. We would regress
to the level of the Dark Ages. There could be massive earthquakes produced by the energy yielded by such an impact. If it hit one of the oceans, which
is likely, it would trigger tidal waves which would most certainly wipe out the coastal regions in that part of the world. An enormous amount of soil
and dust would be sent into the atmosphere which could trigger a cosmic winter lasting a prolonged time.
"Most people would be killed not by the impact itself, but by the knock-on effects. There would be a complete collapse of society and the abandonment
of agricultural settlements. It's inevitable that at some point in our history a large object will impact. It's just a question of time."
An asteroid the size of 1997 XF11 colliding with the Earth at more than 17,000mph would explode with the energy of almost two million Hiroshima-sized
Dr Marsden said that the next five years should be spent establishing definitively whether the asteroid is going to hit Earth. If it is, there will
still be 25 years in which to act.
There would be two principal courses of action. We could launch a nuclear bomb timed to explode beside XF11 when it is hundreds of thousands of miles
away from Earth. The force of a nuclear explosion would nudge the asteroid just an inch out of its path and this distortion would amplify over the
years into a path that would miss Earth with a comfortable margin. One obstacle to this approach is an international treaty banning the use of nuclear
weapons in space.
Alternatively, humans could establish a base on the Moon from which to blast the asteroid with a strong laser beam, chipping tiny bits off it and
distorting its path.
If XF11 does not hit Earth, and it is a clear night, it will pass over Europe and people will be able to watch it soar from north-west to south-east
over a couple of hours.
Astronomers described yesterday how the mile-wide object was first spotted by Jim Scotti, an astronomer in Arizona, on Dec 6. At first, scientists
thought that it would pass Earth at a huge distance. Then, over the next 14 days, more observations were made and the calculations yielded narrower
and narrower margins between it and Earth. By February, they were predicting a 500,000-mile pass.
A month later, new observations extended the graph of the asteroid's orbit and the margin suddenly shrank to 30,000 miles. "It was amazingly close,"
said Dr Marsden. "We have had small objects come within under 70 miles of Earth but those were tiny."
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena yesterday confirmed the calculations but predicted a greater gap, of 45,000 miles. The Moon is about 250,000
Dr Marsden issued a plea to astronomers to try to catch traces of the asteroid before it fades over the sun's horizon in two months' time, after which
there will be no more information about for about 20 months.
In early 2000 it will be visible through moderate-sized telescopes with electronic sensors. On Hallowe'en night in 2002 it will be so near that even
modest telescopes will be able to detect it.
The Royal Astronomical Society warned that the 1-in-1,000 chance of a collision was based on uncertainties in our knowledge, not on variations in the
asteroid's path. Dr Jacqueline Mitton said: "It is not something that's going to change - either the asteroid is going to hit us or it is not. It is
simply that we are looking at limited data."
12 March 1998: Are we sitting ducks in a cosmic shooting gallery?
24 July 1997: Asteroids 'combined to destroy'
27 April 1997: Nasa to launch missiles against asteroids
2 January 1997: Earth watches for asteroids 'running riot'
30 November 1996: Close encounter as chaotic asteroid passes only 3.3m miles from Earth
Since the chances of an asteroid hitting Earth are remote but real, scientists and engineers are exploring all sorts of ideas for protecting the
The "Armageddon" strategy - sending up Bruce Willis with a nuke - is likely to fail or even backfire, scientists say.
An asteroid or comet tops the list of suspects for the sudden extinction of half of all species about 200 million years ago, and another may have
exterminated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Congress has mandated that NASA find 90 percent of one-kilometer Near-Earth Objects by 2008. So far, 672 have been detected, and none is a sure threat
for roughly the rest of the century.
An asteroid that size doesn't sound so big, but when hitting Earth at 25,000 to 50,000 miles per hour, the heat, smoke and debris could alter the
climate and destroy crops, resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths.
The odds of such an event occurring within the next year are about 1 in 600,000, according to a recent MIT study - yet that's far more likely your
next airline flight crashing or your next lottery ticket hitting a multistate lottery.
These aren't the only rocky horrors. There may be a half-million or more smaller, harder-to-detect NEOs capable of devastating a city or region.
Scientists say the time has come to get serious about defending the planet.
Blasting an asteroid with nuclear missiles could prove ineffective, even disastrous. Many asteroids are agglomerations of rubble and could absorb the
blast, computer simulations suggest. Besides, warns Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., "you'd break up the body
uncontrollably, with potentially disastrous results" - like multiple fragments pounding the Earth.
Deflection - changing an asteroid's path - is the best bet, especially if the impact is years away. Ideas include: Use a giant airbag (chemically
inflated in space) pushed by a rocket; position a giant magnifying glass or curved mirror to focus sunlight and scorch rock into blasts of gas; land a
digging machine that creates thrust by ejecting material into space; or merely change the object's color - paint it or cover it with dirt - to alter
how it absorbs and reflects the sun's heat.
Two comprehensive proposals come from groups of experts devoting special attention to the problem.
Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center, led by Mazarek, have proposed a space-based laser system. This could vaporize parts of an asteroid's
surface to force it to move. If stationed in space - say on the moon - this laser system could stand ready to alter an asteroid's course in a few
months. Other nudging approaches could require many months or even years. Powerful-enough lasers, however, have not yet been developed, so, even if
such a project won approval and funding, it might take two or more decades to complete.
The other proposal, to develop a kind of space tugboat, was put forth by the B612 Foundation, an independent anti-asteroid group headed by
ex-astronaut Rusty Schweickart and named after the asteroid address in "The Little Prince." This space-going vessel would anchor itself to an
asteroid, get its spin under control, and slowly push it off-course. The group wants NASA to take up its proposal and test a system by 2015.
How about fighting fire with fire - deflect a smaller, more cooperative asteroid to slam the would-be assassin aside? This idea "has great appeal -
free kinetic energy!" said Erik Asphaug, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz whose calculations helped cast doubt on using
Expressing skepticism is Joseph Spitale, the scientist at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, who proposed the coat of paint
idea. "It's probably very difficult to modify the orbit of an asteroid with the precision required to make it hit anything."
The more ideas the better, says Jonathan W. Campbell, a researcher at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He believes a combination of
options will be needed.
Getting funding even for development and testing will be a challenge, said Maranek. "We need to practice moving comets and asteroids so we can be
ready to divert an object that is a hazard. However, I am afraid that the frequency of this type of natural disaster makes it extremely difficult to
justify developing a planetary defense system in our short-sighted, political-term-timeframe-focused society."
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i hope the astrode doesnt hit i hope we do something about it because if we dont we will