Asteroids and Us: How They’re Detected and Deflected

by Modis on June 28, 2017

asteroids in our solar systemOn June 30th, 1908, scientists believe a small asteroid exploded over Tunguska in Siberia, devastating 800 square miles. The destruction was caused by an object entering the earth’s atmosphere at 9 to 19 miles a second and exploding some 6 miles above Tunguska, releasing the equivalent energy of 185 Hiroshima nuclear bombs and flattening trees in a 30-mile radius.

June 30th is now celebrated annually as Asteroid Day. The goal of the day is to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect the earth in order to prevent an event similar to the Tunguska incident from occurring again.

So what exactly is an Asteroid?

Asteroids are basically large chunks of rock thought to be debris left over from the early days of the formation of the solar system. Ranging in size from a small car to several miles across, asteroids orbit the sun and sometimes cross paths with the Earth.

How do we detect them?

Recently, scientists have turned to technology to detect asteroid threats. For example, NASA has created the NEO Observations Program, which is tasked with finding, tracking and characterizing Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and identifying those that may pose a hazard to Earth. The program uses ground-based telescopes and NASA’s NEOWISE spacecraft to discover NEOs. NASA states that in the fiscal year 2013, the NEO Observations Program supported 41 ongoing projects, including 5 detection and tracking campaigns, 10 follow-up surveys, 9 characterization efforts, 3 radar projects, 4 data processing and management projects, 6 technology development projects, and 4 studies of techniques for impact mitigation.

How do we deflect them?

Although detection is an important part of protecting ourselves from asteroids, it only offers so much. Experts have been warning for some time that humans are not prepared for an asteroid impact and if one heads for earth, there’s not much we can do about it.

But do not fear, scientists are developing plans and concepts that could avert such an asteroid disaster. NASA and Iowa State University have both invested in research for asteroid deflection. Iowa State University’s Asteroid Deflection Research Center is researching technologies, such as the Hypervelocity Nuclear Interceptor System, which uses a one-two punch of kinetic energy and nuclear explosives to shift an asteroid’s course. The technology is still years away from a prototype, but it does offer some hope that an asteroid impact can be averted.

Other ideas include the use of solar sails, where a large sail that catches the solar wind is attached to the object and its trajectory is slowly changed. The biggest issue with the solar sail solution is that it has to be deployed many years before an asteroid comes near earth to be effective.

Other concepts such as gravity tractors and antimatter technology remain firmly placed in science fiction and do not offer any viability at this time. NASA and other space agencies are launching probes to learn more about asteroids and hopefully will deliver relevant data that will make it easier to deal with the threats of asteroids.


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