February 16, 2013

Near-Earth objects: 'Exciting day ... like a shooting gallery'

Astronomers are giddy as NASA broadcasts live on the day an asteroid flies within 17,000 miles of Earth.

By ERIKA BOLSTAD McClatchy Newspapers

Although the probability of a meteorite crashing in their backyards shouldn't keep ordinary people up at night, scientists who study such matters are worried.

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Former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart holds a model of an asteroid over a globe in 2005 to demonstrate the devastation such an impact would have.

Associated Press file photos

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The 4,000-foot-wide Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz., was created by what scientists believe was a 10,000,000-ton meteorite 500 centuries ago.

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The meteor that streaked across the Russian sky Friday startled scientists worldwide, even as it triggered a window- and roof-rattling shockwave that injured more than 1,000 people in the city of Chelyabinsk.

Astronomers on Friday had their eyes skyward on a separate object, the much larger asteroid known as 2012 DA14. It was coincidence that it came so close to Earth at the same time a meteoroid flamed into the atmosphere over Russia's Ural Mountains, NASA scientists said. Still, scientists are paying attention to the paths of future near-Earth objects. One nonprofit space research foundation plans an infrared telescope that will be able to detect more meteorites that have potential to inflict damage on world cities.

"This is public safety. We're doing this because we believe it needs to be done," said former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, chairman emeritus of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroids. Its name comes from the children's book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. B612 is the asteroid home cared for by the Little Prince.

There is no surefire system to scan the skies for threatening asteroids, particularly ones that come in at the angle of the meteor over Russia. So in the near future, the best hope is better monitoring of the meteorites that, typically, orbit in a belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Science also has few options for knocking incoming asteroids off course, which was part of the early work done by the B612 Foundation.

Scientists, led by NASA, track thousands of such near-Earth objects. They're only a fraction of the asteroids in the solar system, however. There are about 500,000 near-Earth asteroids the size of 2012 DA14. Of those, less than 1 percent have been discovered, NASA said.

Until 20 years ago, there was even less ability to track them -- and Asteroid 2012 DA14 itself was discovered by amateur astronomers at the La Sagra Sky Survey operated by the Astronomical Observatory of Mallorca in Spain.

The gaps in knowledge are precisely why B612 was founded, Schweickart said. They have plans to deploy in 2018 an infrared space telescope; its purpose will be to discover asteroids that could do serious damage to Earth. Their telescope still would be unable to capture asteroids the size of the one that entered the atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Schweickart said. But it will capture many more of those the size of Asteroid 2012 DA14.

"The purpose is to discover most -- we're not going to get all -- of the asteroids that are out there," Schweickart said. "All of them are much bigger than the one that hit Russia this morning. I'm not counting things that break glass, I'm talking about things that will wipe out cities or more."

There's little appetite in Congress right now to increase spending, but Friday's double-whammy may have changed some minds.

"As the world leader in space exploration, America has made great progress for mankind," the chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement. "But our work is not done. We should continue to study, research and explore space to better understand our universe and better protect our planet."

It's also a matter of national security, said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a physicist and the former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He cited congressional testimony from 2002, when a meteor exploded over the Mediterranean at a time of particularly tense relations between India and Pakistan. If the meteor had exploded over India or Pakistan, one military leader warned, it might have been misidentified as a nuclear attack.

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