Keep Watching the Skies: Protecting Earth Against Asteroid Impacts


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Is the Earth at risk of an asteroid impact? Image courtesy of NASA

There are plenty of things to keep the denizens of Earth awake in the middle of the night: disease, climate change, war, terrorism, environmental degradation, chronic unemployment—well, you get the picture.

With enough global woes for one person’s thumb to erode away a neat pile of Tibetan worry stones, let’s add to it the fear of extraterrestrial impacts. To reboot a Cold War-era slogan, “One asteroid impact can ruin your whole day.”

Asteroid Protection: New Space Telescope

Decades of descriptions about, and imagery of, natural cosmic disasters—from books and movies about worlds in collision as well as news about an asteroid or comet impactor having triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago—have so permeated the 21st-century human zeitgeist that it has prompted some space researchers to soberly consider humanity’s precarious place in space.

Enter the B612 Foundation, a private foundation started in 2002 by veteran NASA astronauts Rusty Schweikert and Ed Lu and astronomers Clark Chapman and Piet Hut.

The organization hopes to launch its own Sentinel Space Telescope, under development by Ball Aerospace, by 2018 to act as a space DEW, or Distant Early Warning, line for warning Earth against encroaching asteroids.

If the B612 Sentinel telescope is ever built, and it makes it into orbit, it will survey approximately 90 percent of near Earth asteroids with diameters of 140 meters (460 feet) and larger. However, it won’t ignore smaller, equally-threatening, asteroids either.

Near Earth Asteroids

Based in Mountain View, California, a stone’s throw from the NASA Ames Research Center, the non-profit foundation takes its name from the asteroid B-612, or 46610 Bésixdouze (1993 TQ1), the home world of the fanciful traveler in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s book, “The Little Prince.”

The B612 Foundation takes its mission seriously.

More than a million… Near Earth Asteroids are larger than the asteroid that struck Tunguska in 1908, and about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” the B612 website tells us. “That asteroid was only about 40 meter across (less than the length of an Olympic swimming pool), yet destroyed an area roughly the size of the San Francisco Bay area, destroying 80 million trees over 1000 square miles. Currently there is no comprehensive dynamic map of our inner solar system showing the positions and trajectories of these asteroids that might threaten Earth. The citizens of Earth are essentially flying around the Solar System with eyes closed.”

In the meantime, B612 has its work cut out. It hopes to raise $450 million for the total development and launch cost of Sentinel Space Telescope sometime before its scheduled 2018 launch. And even with a successful space telescope, B612 will be unable to prevent an asteroid impact. An earlier mission of the non-profit would have developed technology for redirecting threatening asteroids. So far, the fate of that effort is uncertain.

Watching The Skies

Last year’s astonishing meteor airburst over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk sparked renewed public interest in the B612 Foundation. The organization’s administrators reported a big upsurge in worldwide interest following the 2013 airburst, according to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, there may be something to the warnings of things to come in 1950s sci-fi cinema classics. After all, it was the radio news reporter character Scotty  (played by the actor Douglas Spencer) in Howard Hawks’ and John Campbell’s, “The Thing” who first cautioned audiences about outer space threats: “Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”

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