Can We Protect the Planet From an Asteroid Speeding Towards It?
The most famous asteroid to collide with Earth is the Chicxulub crater, which hit the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago. In more recent years, meteoroids have hit us, the asteroid’s smaller cousin. A big one hasn’t hit us in a while, but the next one is somewhat unavoidable, according to Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. But what will happen when an enormous object is speeding towards us? Will we know about it ahead of time and will we be able to defend ourselves? According to Chabot, scientists are already tracking around 90 percent of the larger asteroids (around a kilometer or bigger), using Earth-based telescopes that take multiple pictures over several nights.
However, experts in planetary defense are much more concerned with smaller objects, a few hundred meters, or more. “If something in that smaller size hit the Earth, it wouldn’t necessarily be an extinction level event, but it would be a regional devastation,” says Chabot. NASA’s next big venture in planetary defense, is putting a telescope in space that’s “good at finding asteroids,” she says. “Most telescopes that we put in space are designed to look at things really far away, but these objects are very close to Earth in our solar system so they move really fast. Once we know where asteroids are, we’ll have plenty of warning time if they’re heading towards us.
But the only way DART works is if you have enough warning time to get your rocket into space and start nudging it. Phillip Lubin specializes in planetary defense at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In the end, we have to know where objects are and then we have to know the feasibility of intercepting them to either nudge them or break them apart. “Humanity does not currently possess a robust planetary defense program — period.
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