Just when you thought you could go back outside . . .
The excitement of a total eclipse of the sun over a wide swath of the United States has only just died down when this announcement comes from NASA: a huge asteroid of more than 2.7 miles in diameter will pass within 4.4 million miles of Earth on September 1, 2017. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close, though it is 18 times further than the distance to the moon. So, don’t worry, we’re in no danger of going the way of the dinosaurs—this time. The asteroid, named Florence, will be just near enough to give space scientists a thrill as they observe the surface of the rocky object up close and personal.
Far more potentially dangerous are the many smaller asteroids lurking out there in the dark that we can’t see. One of these little chunks of orbiting rock entered the Earth’s atmosphere as a meteor on February 13, 2013 and exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. The meteor glowed 30 times brighter than the sun as it screamed toward the ground, and the 500-kiloton blast when it hit was the biggest of its kind in 100 years. The blast and resulting fire injured 1,500 people and damaged thousands of buildings.
According to physicist Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories, “The chances are virtually certain that we are going to be next hit by a little asteroid that is a ‘city buster’ long before we are hit by a bigger one." Scientists have worked hard to identify the potential "end-of-the-world" asteroids that are at least one kilometer (.6 miles) wide and believe they have found nearly 95 percent of them. But there may be over one million near-Earth asteroids at least 30 m (100 feet) wide, and less than one percent of these have been discovered.
The U.N. action team on Near Earth Objects has proposed the creation of an International Asteroid Warning Network to scan for these smaller asteroids and give advanced warning of their approach. A Space Mission Planning Advisory Group has taken up the subject.But so far the actual network is just talk.
A nonprofit organization, the B612 Foundation, already exists which is dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroids. The organization’s current focus is the "Sentinel Mission," a space-based infrared (IR) survey mission to discover and catalog asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s neighborhood. Sentinel is set to launch in 2018.
Of course, the question is what could be done to protect Earth if one of these rogue asteroids was detected heading straight for us. Well, in case you missed the movie Armageddon, you could check out CBS Network’s summer-lite version of that scenario, Salvation. The overwrought script’s plot takes its hand-wringing scientists through the options, including trying to knock the big rock off course with a convenient planetary probe, pushing it with the little thrusters from the ISS, intercepting it with a heavy rocket powered by a technology that hasn’t been invented yet, and, their last hope, interception on Earth’s doorstep with nuclear weapons. No one wants that option because, of course, hundreds of tiny radioactive meteors landing all over several continents is not really a good solution. (And, since the asteroid problem is not nearly enough to keep us entertained, someone is trying to sabotage the good guys’ efforts to save us, too!)
Salvation is bad SF writing, but good schlocky fun, and it has the benefit of Ian Anthony Dale (Hawaii Five O’s Adam Noshimuri) in a lead role. You could watch this preposterous enactment of the end of the world and shiver and laugh at the same time.
Or you could just go about your business in the great outdoors believing there’s nothing overhead but blue sky. Your choice.
Information for this post drawn from:
“Now Playing: They Come From Outer Space to Destroy the World,” by Peter Micheli, Labroots.com, August 26, 2014.
“Huge Asteroid to Pass Closely to Earth on September 1st, 2017,” by Anthony Bouchard, Labroots.com, August 18, 2017.