The common military proverb notes “there are no atheists in a foxhole,” during wartime, and apparently to NASA, the entire Earth feels like a foxhole when confronted by a giant asteroid. NASA chief Charles Bolden did not have many reassuring words for the U.S. House of Representative Science Committee when he spoke recently about his agency’s efforts to track and mitigate recent threats from space.
“From the information we have, we don’t know of an asteroid that will threaten the population of the United States,” Bolden said last week. “But if it’s coming in three weeks, pray.”
The series of talks convened by the Science Committee were prompted by recent events that saw an asteroid roughly 50 feet in diameter to explode over Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15. The blast injured 1,200 people, shattered windows and damaged buildings when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere and spontaneously combusted. That same day, in a completely unrelated (and this time, expected) incident, an asteroid discovered by amateur astronomers and followed by NASA passed a mere 17,200 miles from our planet – within the orbital belt of geostationary satellites. The asteroid was a near miss, to be sure, but the Russian meteor caused most alarm because it had arrived completely undetected, causing governments around the world to reconsider their asteroid defense programs.
Though Bolden did call attention to how unprepared we are with technology to deal from the impact of a collision with a NEO (near earth object), he attempted to assuage fears by noting that the probability of such objects impacting Earth within the next 100 years is “extremely remote.” The space agency has been documenting and collecting data on NEOs for over 15 years, and it is responsible for the discovery of about 98% of all known NEOs — a total of about 10,000.
But former NASA astronaut and founder of the B612 Foundation (a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid impacts) Edward Lu, wasn’t optimistic about the future of tracking these dangerous space rocks. “For every one we know about, there are a hundred more we don’t know about. Most of the Earth is unpopulated and we could get lucky,” he told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space last week.
The good news, though, is that if given adequate warning, our current technology is advanced enough to deflect such asteroids. And our spotting technology is on the rise, too: the Sentinel telescope, a project coordinated by the B612 Foundation is expected to discover and catalog 90% of the asteroids larger than 459 feet (140 meters) in our region of the solar system. Until its launch in July 2018 though, it looks like all we can do in the face of space rocks is pray that they’ll pass us by — and yes, that’s NASA’s official order.