After Russian Meteor, Keeping Closer Eye on Sky

Posted March 1st, 2013 at 4:19 pm (UTC-4)

A meteorite contrail is seen over a vilage of Bolshoe Sidelnikovo 50 km of Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (Photo: AP/Nadezhda Luchinina,

A meteorite contrail is seen over a village in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (AP)

Earth resembled a cosmic shooting gallery this month after a meteor exploded over Russia. And then, a few hours later, an asteroid passed closer to Earth than most weather and communications satellites.

These two events, happening so close to each other, alerted people to the dangers posed by near-Earth objects such as asteroids, comets and other celestial debris lurking in outer space.

Several government agencies worldwide have programs to find and track these potential intruders.

This week, the Canadian Space Agency became the latest member of the international science community to join the effort, launching its NEOSSat spacecraft aboard an Indian PSLV-C20 rocket.

Astronaut Russell L. "Rusty" Schweickart - Circa 1971 (Photo: NASA)

Astronaut Russell L. “Rusty” Schweickart – Circa 1971 (NASA)

Also known as Canada’s Sentinel in the Sky, the experimental microsatellite is designed to detect and track near-Earth objects and space debris.

Other organizations also plan to keep an eye on these threatening space objects.

The B612 Foundation, a private organization comprised of notable scientists, including two former NASA astronauts, hopes to develop an early warning system to alert people to incoming danger.

Founded in 2001, the group originally focused on asteroid deflection research and advocacy. Later it realized that to protect humanity from a potentially destructive impact, an early warning system would be required.  The group went to work developing technology to make that possible.

The group plans to design, build, test, insure and launch a privately-funded spacecraft called the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope.

Artist illustration of the B612 Foundation's space telescope Sentinal (Image: B612 Foundation)

Artist illustration of the B612 Foundation’s space telescope Sentinal (B612 Foundation)

With its Sentinel spacecraft, the B612 foundation hopes to discover and catalog 90 percent of asteroids, larger than 140 meters, which pass through Earth’s region of the solar system.

The mission team also hopes to document a significant number of smaller asteroids, down to a diameter of 30 meters.

So what if an asteroid or comet is found to be on a collision course with our planet?

Former NASA astronaut, Russell “Rusty” Schweickart (Apollo 9), warns against trying to completely destroy such an object with a nuclear explosion.

Schweickart, one of the founders of the B612 foundation,  favors a deflection technique, which would mean giving the space object a  nudge to veer off of its projected collision path with Earth.

According to Schweickart, in order to deflect a space object, preventative efforts must start several years to a decade ahead of the projected impact with Earth.

This would be done in two stages.  The first involves running the object off with an adequately sized spacecraft.

One method that's been proposed to deflect an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth is a kinetic impactor where a spacecraft rams into the object giving it a nudge and pushing it away.  This is the ESA's proposed Hidalgo space craft may be able to do just that. (Photo: ESA)

A kinetic impactor is a spacecraft that rams into the object giving it a nudge and pushing it away. The ESA is hoping that their proposed Hidalgo space craft will be able to do just that. (ESA)

If you ran into the side of the object facing Earth, according to Schweickart, the object would slow down; hitting it from the opposite direction would speed it up.  That step alone could prevent a possibly catastrophic impact with Earth.

But to ensure that object has been properly and safely nudged away from hitting  Earth, a gravity tractor would need to follow,  according to Schweickart.

A second spacecraft would pull up next to the object and hover either in front of it to speed it up, or behind it to slow it down.  The mutual gravity between the hovering spacecraft and the space object, he says, will pull the object toward the gravity tractor very slightly, but enough to cause a precise change in its orbit, deflecting it away from Earth.

Schweickart believes high-powered nuclear devices should only be considered if the approaching object happens to be enormous, something that occurs once every several million years.

Rather than using the nukes to blow the asteroid-like object to smithereens, Schweickart says the devices should be detonated near it.

This, he says, would make the object extremely hot on one side, boiling off that side which will push it off in the opposite direction, deflecting it away from Earth.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

4 responses to “After Russian Meteor, Keeping Closer Eye on Sky”

  1. Bill Simpson says:

    And a comet will make a near miss of Mars in 2014 according to The Economist. You can send one down to a neighborhood near you by visiting Purdue’s site, Impact: Earth!
    Even a relatively small one does a LOT of damage. You’ll see how you won’t want to be on Mars next year if it happens to hit. Remember, radiant heat energy travels at the speed of light. So don’t stand out in the yard to watch if one is heading this way.

  2. anona says:

    What if ‘rouge state’ use all this knowledge and technology instead to direct asteroids to Earth ? As you say and by phisics equation one can calculate – it enought to send a secret rocket few months in advance to divert object like DA14. Do we as a World have checks and balances to see waht (any rouge but, who know which state) was send in space just few months ago?

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