Stories tagged asteroids

Bill Nye gives us a quick, and fun, lesson on how we can avoid problem asteroids of the future.


Asteroid: A number of public and private researchers are keeping tabs on the asteroids and other space objects that could hit Earth.
Asteroid: A number of public and private researchers are keeping tabs on the asteroids and other space objects that could hit Earth.Courtesy NASA/JPL
Last week could have been called "Chicken Little Week" with the near miss of Earth by an asteroid and and the dazzling, but havoc-producing meteor crossing through the Russian skies. Have you taken off your safety helmet yet?

While it takes an extraordinary week like that to make most of us think about the dangers looming out in space, there are researchers dedicated to tracking the dangerous projectiles in space. Here's a great report on public and private research groups keeping track of the random traffic in the skies.

Interestingly, they claim that we only really spot about 10 percent of the miscellaneous space stuff that could collide with Earth. And, they're not just settling for trying to pinpoint where the problems are. They're trying to figure out ways to deflect or break-up potentially damaging space threats. Taking it one step higher, some are even investigating ways to mine key minerals from these threats to Earth.


Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.
Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.Courtesy Blue Marble
It isn’t good to confuse great-grandparents. For one, they’re often dead, and confusing them involves meddling in forces that are best be left alone. Or, in the case that they aren’t dead, they’ve had a busy life parenting, grand-parenting, and great-grand-parenting, and they deserve a little more from you than a bunch of confusing jibber-jabber about meteorites, or whatever you just said.

So if your great-grandparents are still alive (not dead), please do them a favor, and just make something up as you pretend to read the rest of this post out loud to them. Their side of the 20th century probably did not equip them for this sort of thing:

Asteroid mining! After thousands of years of scratching through the dirt, wearing our finger bones to stumps in near-futile attempts to uncover the shiniest bits of gravel, humanity will finally ascend to the stars, and scratch through the dirt of asteroids in the noble effort to find the shiniest astro-gravel. And it will make us richer than our wildest dreams!

Or it will make the billionaires behind the project as rich as their everyday dreams.

Here’s the story: a bunch of billionaires and their spunky sidekick, James Cameron (who is a film director, and worth only about 700 million dollars—practically destitute), looked out over their Earth and wept, because there was nowhere left to conquer. It was maybe the worst Unicorn Polo Sunday ever. But then James Cameron, lying on his back after slipping on a banana peel (that’s sort of his role in the group), looked up at the sky and said, “Hey, gang! I have an idea! Maybe there’s more up there for us!”

Well, the members of the Billionaires’ Club would like to say that they took lil’ Jim’s suggestion there and then, but, frankly, they had heard a lot of nonsense out of his pinched little mouth over the years, and they had long ago learned to tune him out. (Xenomorph this, Titanic that, look at my submarine, what about another killer robot, what has my ex wife done that’s so special?—they had heard it all before.)

But at some point Cameron’s seemingly childish remark filtered its way through the buzz of billionaire preoccupations (stocking up on mansion wax, plans to swim Scrooge McDuck style through gold coins, and which would be the best ocean to buy) and lodged itself in the billionaires’ minds, where it incubated, hatched, and chewed its way deeper into their brain tissue.

And thus Planetary Resources was born. With a group of billionaires behind it (including Larry Page, CEO of Google, power of earth; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, power of fire; Charles Simonyi, Microsoft guy, power of water; and Ross Perot Junior, son of diminutive former presidential candidate, power of heart) and James Cameron as an advisor (because he has made at least two movies about space, and has been in a submarine), Planetary Resources plans to scan thousands of near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, and then send robotic probes to pull the asteroids into a convenient location, and then smash them up for their goods.

Why? For a few reasons. Partly because it’s awesome, and you need to be super rich to do it, and they’re exactly that rich. But also because lots of these asteroids are full of precious, useful metals—billions and billions of dollars worth in even small asteroids. And asteroids with lots of ice in them could basically be turned into gas stations for spaceships. Water is pretty easily split into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can use for rocket fuel, and having fuel waiting in space is way, way, way cheaper than bringing it there from Earth. So making fuel available in space could potentially lower the cost of exploring our solar system quite a bit.

The plan is to launch a fleet of (relatively) cheap asteroid-scanning telescopes some time in the next two or three years to identify near-Earth objects that both contain enough valuable materials, and are near enough to Earth (the hope being that they would be as easy or easier to reach than the moon). In the next decade, or somewhere in that neighborhood anyway, larger spacecraft would be launched that could capture the asteroids. Harvested materials could then be processed in space, or sent back to the planet. All operations would be unmanned, as having human pilots or minors would make everything significantly more expensive and risky.

In the week or so since the Planetary Resources made their announcement, it seems like most of the professional reactions I’ve read have treated the plan pretty seriously—while it requires a large investment, it’s not unrealistic.

I have to admit, it’s kind of an exciting plan. And it will keep the billionaires occupied for a little bit, which is good. Because we all know what happens when a billionaire gets bored.

(It didn’t make sense to me either. You think your great-grandparents are going to get it?)


So, this spacecraft that was launched over seven years ago to collect a sample off an asteroid is back? I didn't even know it had left! I am way out of the loop on the activities of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and if this mission is any example, they are doing some sweet stuff.

A Light in the Sky: Hayabusa streaked across the sky through the clouds as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Woomera Test Range in Australia. In Kingoonya, the spacecraft’s re-entry was visible to the human eye for 15 seconds.
A Light in the Sky: Hayabusa streaked across the sky through the clouds as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Woomera Test Range in Australia. In Kingoonya, the spacecraft’s re-entry was visible to the human eye for 15 seconds.Courtesy NASA/Ed Schilling
was launched on May 9, 2003 with the intent of it flying to an asteroid, photographing the bejesus out of it, then "landing" on it, collecting a sample and finally returning to Earth. And it did make it to the asteroid and back - returning to Earth on the 13th of June.

Hayabusa did have some troubles along the way – losing a miniprobe to deep space, the failure of two reaction wheels, the failure to properly land and collect a sample (though a sample may still have been obtained)… It was not a flawless mission, but to achieve what they did is no small feat - pretty amazing if you ask me.

Here are some links to learn more.
The JAXA main site.
Hayabusa JAXA mission page.


Deadly space potato: Expect all basketball games to be canceled tonight.
Deadly space potato: Expect all basketball games to be canceled tonight.Courtesy NASA
Late on the evening of January 29, astronomers expect an asteroid the width of several football fields to pass within spitting distance of the Earth. So close will the proximity be, in fact, that NASA has issued a global statement urging all people over six feet in height to spend the night of the twenty ninth lying down, or at least ducking.

The consequences of a direct collision between a human head and an asteroid somewhere between 150 and 600 meters in diameter, doctors say, could potentially be devastating. Due to the peculiar physics of the situation, it is very likely that the head would suffer the greater damage, turning first into something like strawberry pudding, and then immediately into something like cherry-scented mist. The asteroid may or may not receive a small stain.

Ecologists have expressed concern over the impending event as well. Most humans will easily dodge the astral body by simply reducing their height temporarily. Many animals, however, will not have this option. Giraffes, for instance, are expected to suffer heavily.

As distressing as the prospect of bonking your forehead into such a large piece of space rock may be, astronomers suggest that we look on the bright side, and consider ourselves lucky that the asteroid will not actually impact upon the planet. It is thought that the Earth undergoes a collision of similar scale every 37,000 years or so. Were such an asteroid to hit on land, it would explode like a 1500-megaton bomb, and create a crater three miles wide. Were it to fall in the ocean, which is more likely, it would result in a massive tsunami.

As it will actually be passing about 334,000 miles away from the Earth (about 100,000 miles further out than the moon), any buzzketeers interested in seeing the asteroid should be able to do so with a “modest-sized” telescope, It’s going to look small, though.


So fragile, so vulnerable -- so what do you do?: How would you allocate funds to protect the Earth from disaster?
So fragile, so vulnerable -- so what do you do?: How would you allocate funds to protect the Earth from disaster?Courtesy NASA

The Lifeboat Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding solutions to global challenges, has an interesting poll on its blog. Let’s say you had an extra $100 million lying around, and you could spend it to protect the Earth and all its people from the following threats:

  • Deadly diseases
  • Global warming
  • Invasion from outer space
  • Abusive governments
  • Nanotechnology run amok
  • Nuclear holocaust
  • Asteroid collision
  • Intelligent computers run amok
  • Simulation shut down
  • Other

How would you distribute the $100 million? You might think all of these issues are important, but you’ve only got so much money. How would you spend it? (You can go to the Lifeboat blog and cast your vote, and see how other people have voted.)

Actually, a similar survey has already been run by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. He runs the Copenhagen Consensus, a program which invites world leaders to prioritize their efforts based on what actions would produce the greatest benefits. They found that every dollar spent on health issues, such as AIDS, malnutrition and malaria, produced up to $40 worth of benefits, while money spent on other worthy causes often generated much less.

As for me, I’d also put most of my money on deadly diseases – this is something we know is real. I’d probably also put a chunk on “other” for environmental protection – pollution, deforestation, species loss.

This is not to dismiss all of the other threats. I certainly worry about some crackpot getting a hold of nuclear weapons. But full-scale nuclear holocaust seems a lot less likely now than it did back during the Cold War. Abusive governments? A local problem, to be sure, but not one likely to threaten the planet and all life on it.

The others seem rather far-fetched to me. Global warming? My skepticism over the threat this poses is well-documented elsewhere on this blog, though certainly others disagree with me. Asteroid collision? Happens once every 100 million years or so; killer germs emerge once a generation. Invasion from outer space? Get real – if interstellar travel were possible, wouldn’t the space men be here by now? Nanotechnology turning everything into gray goo? A casual familiarity with nano shows that such fears are vastly overrated. Artificial intelligence ruling the world? They’ve been promising AI since the early ‘60s – I’m still waiting.

My favorite, though, is “Simulation shut down.” Basically, this means that nothing in this world is real – you, I, and everything on Earth are just part of a massive virtual game run on a gigantic computer operated by some intelligent being in another dimension, and we need to prevent him/her/it from turning the computer off. While this would certainly explain a few anomalies I’ve noticed in the Universe (I mean, come on, penguins?), epistemologically, there is no way we could possibly know whether or not this was true. And even if it was, how could our $100 million virtual dollars have any effect on the being running the program?

What about you? How would you spend a theoretical $100 million to save the Earth? Leave a note in the comments.


Rosetta: It didn't want to cause any trouble. All it wants to do is chase comets.
Rosetta: It didn't want to cause any trouble. All it wants to do is chase comets.Courtesy Wikimedia commons
Just in case you were concerned, the planet earth isn’t about to get creamed by an asteroid.

Oh? You weren’t concerned? Never mind.

Apparently, last week the Minor Planet Center was just about to release an emergency warning that a large, extra-terrestrial body was just about to pass a hair’s breadth from the earth – it should have skimmed by about 3,500 miles away. That’s creepily close, when we’re dealing with space.

Fortunately (for our stress centers, I guess) a clever Russian scientist actually took the time to look at the nearly earth-bound mass, and to track its trajectory, and realized that it was, in fact, the European, comet-chasing probe, Rosetta. Rosetta is about the size of a utility van (with wings), and we are quite safe from it.

So, thanks to one plucky Russian astronomer, the world is safe again. You all still have a pretty good chance of getting hit by cars tomorrow, though, or by dead birds falling from the sky. Or of choking on something you thought would be harmless, like pudding.

Best title for a science article, ever! All about efforts to track asteroids, comets and other outer space stuff that might hit the Earth, and to deflect or destroy it before it does.