Are asteroids humanity's 'greatest challenge'?

June 28, 2017 by Mariëtte Le Roux
Close encounter: NASA graphic showing asteroid 1998 QE2, which caused a brief scare when it skimmed past Earth in 2013. But one day a space rock is bound to be on target, say worried scientists

Throughout its 4.5-billion-year history, Earth has been repeatedly pummelled by space rocks that have caused anything from an innocuous splash in the ocean to species annihilation.

When the next big impact will be, nobody knows.

But the pressure is on to predict—and intercept—its arrival.

"Sooner or later we will get... a minor or major impact," Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, told AFP ahead of International Asteroid Day on Friday.

It may not happen in our lifetime, he said, but "the risk that Earth will get hit in a devastating event one day is very high."

For now, there is little we can do.

And yet, the first-ever mission to crash a probe into a small rock to alter its trajectory suffered a major setback when European ministers declined in December to fund part of the project.

"We are not ready to defend ourselves" against an Earth-bound object, said Densing. "We have no active planetary defence measures."

Hitherto relegated to the realms of science fiction, tactics could include nuking an incoming asteroid, using lasers to vaporise it, sending a space "tractor" to drag it off course, or bumping it into a new direction.

But first, we need to be able to spot the threat.

Astrophysicists monitoring the risk classify objects into sizes ranging from a few millimetres to behemoths 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) across—the size of rock that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

The smallest type enter Earth's atmosphere daily, burning up prettily as shooting stars.

End of days

The largest occur once every 100 million years, and the next impact could well ring in the end of human civilisation.

But when would it happen?

So far, experts have managed to list more than 90 percent of asteroids in the dino-killing range, and determined that none poses an immediate threat.

A much bigger concern is the whereabouts of millions of asteroids in the 15- to 140-metre (49- to 460-feet) range.

One such object, a 40-metre space rock, caused the largest impact in recent history when it exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, on June 30, 1908—the date on which Asteroid Day is marked.

The blast flattened some 80 million trees over 2,000 sparsely-populated square kilometres (772 square miles)—an area bigger than greater London.

The shockwave from the 2013 Chelyabinsk impact damaged thousands of building—many people were hurt from flying glass

Tunguska-sized events happen, on average, every 300 years or so.

"Imagine that this type of asteroid would fall in a very populated area like... Paris or Germany, I mean this is something that would be really, really a catastrophe," said Nicolas Bobrinsky, programme manager of the European Space Agency's Space Situational Awareness project, which surveys asteroids.

At least the ones it knows of.

The Chelyabinsk impact in 2013, for example, caught everyone unawares.

A once-a-decade category rock of about 20m exploded in the atmosphere over central Russia with the kinetic energy of some 27 Hiroshima bombs.

The resulting shockwave blew out the windows of nearly 5,000 buildings and injured more than 1,200 people.

"Now that we have discovered most of the (asteroids) that are about a kilometre in size and larger, the goal is to discover most of the ones which are (up to) about 140 m," said Patrick Michel, an astrophysicist with France's CNRS research institute.

"This is the threshold—if an object of this size impacts the Earth—for regional damage at the scale of a country or a continent."

Another unknown is long-period comets: wanderers of the Solar System which can take centuries or millennia to orbit the Sun, and whose passage has never been recorded.

Eye on the sky

Europe is setting up a network of telescopes to provide us with a heads-up.

Scheduled for completion in about two years, it "will scan systematically the sky every night and any asteroid which is coming... would be detected with a warning time of approximately two to three weeks," said Bobrinsky.

This is admittedly "not much, but it's better than what we have now," he added.

At the very least, it would allow for cities to be evacuated, or a shockwave warning to be issued.

"Contrary to all other natural risks that we face on Earth, like tsunamis, earthquakes and things like that, this is the only one that we can predict," Michel said.

What is needed is cooperation between politicians and space agencies—and especially money.

An system would require "something in the order of 300-400 million euros" (dollars), according to Bobrinsky—a minuscule amount compared to the cost of disaster.

The United Nations declared June 30 International Asteroid Day to raise public awareness about what event organisers describe as "humanity's greatest challenge".

It was initiated by astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May, and moviemaker Grigorij Richters who directed the sci-fi film 51 Degrees North about an asteroid headed for London.

The initiative has the backing of dozens of scientists, astronauts, and celebrities, many of whom will take part in a special 24-hour live broadcast Friday, with round-the-clock asteroid programming by the European, Japanese and American space agencies.

Explore further: Scientists warn of asteroid danger

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antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (14) Jun 28, 2017
300-400 million EUR seems like a bargain. And the added 'coolness' factor of working on the 'asteroid defence force' could be a great PR tool for getting kids into science.

(Not to mention that it could be something that would be an international effort. And we sorely need stuff that nations can agree and work together on to ease tensions)
f_darwin
1 / 5 (10) Jun 28, 2017
As I have commented before. the concerned individual and organisations mean well, but to get serious they need to know structure and evolution of space bodies. Man dose not know that and current understanding are wrong assumption. Evolution of space bodies will give man understanding to all extinction hazard. From ocean plate clasps to asteroid impact. After Roosevelt and Churchill came to Tehran to meet Stalin. They discos their interest in alien and ancient civilization to shah and asked him if he had any information. Shah asked us for help. We gathered some. shah passed it on to Eisenhower and Churchill, because Roosevelt was dead. At my Last meeting, shah told me he promised them to send me to west to complete my grandfather unfinished work with max Planck and other scientist. As usual America and England failed their agreement and I have been mistreated. In response I have stopped providing them information. I only put information in my comments or if asked officially. MG1
hanterp
5 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2017
A big asteroid is a big threat; see what the one that hitted Earth 65 million years ago did.
But that one was as big as the mount Everest.
It is unlikely that such a big one will hit us soon.

Another big threat is the eruption of a super-volcano, like the one under Yellowstone.
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (12) Jun 28, 2017
It is unlikely that such a big one will hit us soon.

That's the trick with likelyhood: You don't know when it will hit. Just because it's a 1-in-1000000 year event doesn't guarantee that we're safe for the next 500000 years.


Another big threat is the eruption of a super-volcano

Which is irrelevant, because it's not something we can, for the foreseeable future, do anything about. A 1km diameter rock in space is orders of magnitude easier to handle* than several hundred cubic kilometers of magma pushing up through the Earth's mantle.

* while still being barely within the scope where we can even think about doing anything about it.
davejg77
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2017
The probability of a catastrophic asteroid impact in the next 1,000 years is very very low. The last one occurred around 60 million years ago.
KelDude
1.7 / 5 (6) Jun 28, 2017
The biggest threat to humanity today is ourselves. We have seriously overpopulated the planet and it is struggling to support us all. If you look at most if not all of the issues we face from food shortages to pollution we are destroying the planet. We have nowhere else to go yet the destruction continues. Trump says "burn coal and oil" while Putin says it's ok to use chemical weapons in Syria. Species extinction is occurring at it's fastest rate in history. Faster than any mass extinction that's ever occurred before. Yet the world continues on as if nothing is changing and the folks talking about it are crazy. No hope as far as I'm concerned. We're doomed to go extinct ourselves.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (11) Jun 28, 2017
The probability of a catastrophic asteroid impact in the next 1,000 years is very very low.

That's not how probabilities work. And in any event it isn't a relevant argument given that a catastrophic impact is, well, catastrophic. In risk assessment you always have to look at probability AND severity.
TomatoDominos
1.7 / 5 (18) Jun 28, 2017
This risk is not from an astroid but when the Lord Jesus returns to judge all for their sins. Read Revelations, the last book of the Bible, for the details.

2 Peter 3:9-12
"The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!"
doogsnova
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2017
Apophis is coming in 2029, and will hit in 2036 if not deflected before then. The people were warned and warned, but did they listen?
geetang
1 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2017
They make a cream for that. I believe it is called Preparation H. For the big ass-roids I suggest maximum strength!
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Jun 28, 2017
Apophis is coming in 2029, and will hit in 2036 if not deflected before then

Hit probability on the Palermo scale for 2039 is lower than -3 (i.e. below a backround level chance and even below what merits 'careful monitoring' at -2)
davejg77
5 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2017
"That's not how probabilities work. And in any event it isn't a relevant argument given that a catastrophic impact is, well, catastrophic. In risk assessment you always have to look at probability AND severity.

Actually, that is how probabilities work. And no one lets severity determine behavior if the probability is extremely low. Have you stopped crossing the street? Do you protect yourself from a meteorite strike?
JuanitaBroaddricksUpperLip
3 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2017
My favorite fake news always masquerades as settled science.
grdbrg
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2017
How big would a rock need to be to hit an ocean and cause rain for forty days and forty nights?
BackBurner
3.5 / 5 (4) Jun 28, 2017
Not to mention that it could be something that would be an international effort. And we sorely need stuff that nations can agree and work together on to ease tensions


That ship sailed with Chicken Little and climate change.
rrwillsj
2 / 5 (4) Jun 28, 2017
First of all, the Yellowstone super-eruption has already been here, done that. What remains bubbling down under is pretty exhausted.

What should make you sweat, are the volcanoes around the Puget Sound, Seattle region. Any of those biggies go !BOOM! will be bad enough but if they trigger the neighbors in a (Wait for it) "cascade" of eruptions? The debris field will cover a very large part of North America.

And, to quote Professor Fate "When It gets up to my nose? I'm going to complain to somebody!"

Ain't no BEM angels in those cracked teapotty saucers goin' to save our sorry asses when Vulcan shows what a real god can do!

If I gotta believe in the stuporstitions of the facetiously ridiculous sheepfellaters?

"I believe that I will have another drink. And bartender, make it a double!"

You can quote me on that....
jonesdave
4.1 / 5 (9) Jun 28, 2017
First of all, the Yellowstone super-eruption has already been here, done that. What remains bubbling down under is pretty exhausted.


No offence old chap, but that is just wrong. Trust me on this.
jonesdave
3.9 / 5 (7) Jun 28, 2017
How big would a rock need to be to hit an ocean and cause rain for forty days and forty nights?


If it was big enough to do that, the rain would be the least of your worries. Eh? Think about it.
jonesdave
3.7 / 5 (6) Jun 28, 2017
My favorite fake news always masquerades as settled science.


And.......? Anything intelligent to add, or is that it?
jonesdave
3.5 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2017
This risk is not from an astroid but when the Lord Jesus returns to judge all for their sins. Read Revelations, the last book of the Bible, for the details.


Hallelujah!!!!! Bronze age myth is going to save us all from a bleeding asteroid that the non-existent Lord frigging Jesus wouldn't see coming because he never bloody existed! Praise the Lord. Hallelujah! Thank God ;) we had colonies to whence we could remove these nutters back in the day. Shame we didn't keep a closer eye on the daft buggers.

Whydening Gyre
4 / 5 (12) Jun 28, 2017
This risk is not from an astroid but when the Lord Jesus returns to judge all for their sins. Read Revelations, the last book of the Bible, for the details.

2 Peter 3:9-12
"The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!"

This comment convinces me human Stupidity is the bigger threat....
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2017
We've reduced the risk considerably by funding the NEO program at NASA. We need to continue programs like this, and fund a rapid response as well. We also need more than 2 weeks' warning. This will not be a massive effort but it could really pay off in the long run. Cheap insurance.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2017
If you want to know more about current efforts, here you go: https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/

A crawl of that site will give you a pretty good idea of where we stand. We've detected 90% of the NEOs above 1 km in size; they're getting ready to start surveys to find 90% greater than 140 m in size.
Bart_A
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2017
Some people are willing to spend billions of dollars to aviod something that maybe has a 1 in a billion chance of happening. Some people talk of religion as if it is right, and others say that there is only a chance in a million that it could be true. But are these willing to invest something in it even though they think the probability is small?

starfart
5 / 5 (3) Jun 29, 2017
No. Asteroids aren't "humanity's greatest challenge". Human over-population is.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2017
Some people are willing to spend billions of dollars to aviod something that maybe has a 1 in a billion chance of happening. Some people talk of religion as if it is right, and others say that there is only a chance in a million that it could be true. But are these willing to invest something in it even though they think the probability is small?

You have a reference that one in a billion chance?
Homebrook
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2017
Liberals love to spend their time spreading paranoia regarding things they can do nothing about, and which have an almost non-existent level of danger, while things we can do something about and which have an extremely high level of danger they ignore. So what do you think liberals ignore? You figure it out. It is as obvious as the hand in front of your face.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2017
The probability of a catastrophic asteroid impact in the next 1,000 years is very very low. The last one occurred around 60 million years ago.

The Tunguska event was in 1908. Was catastrophic to a rather large chunk of Russian geography...
Not to mention Chelyabinsk in 2013...
Whydening Gyre
3 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2017
No. Asteroids aren't "humanity's greatest challenge". Human over-population is.

Which brings us back to stupidity. Keep it in yer pants, fer Chrissake... Or at least use a condom...
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2017
Any sufficiently intelligent and technologically advanced civilization will look to protect itself from the threat of asteroid impact. I just hope we are one of them.

Let's not overlook the fact that our exploring NEOs presents a big opportunity for discovery and resource utilization. For starters, rock can possibly be used as shielding, ice for drinking and its components, and metals for parts/structures, etc. Considering how much it costs to put a pound of anything into space, there are plenty of ideas for using tons of materials already found up there.

I would also note that launching a laser powerful enough to vaporize a large asteroid is probably not going to happen anytime soon. However, another way to deflect asteroids is to heat up a portion of it with a more modest solar or nuclear-powered laser so that it acts like a small rocket engine and pushes the asteroid onto a better trajectory.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 02, 2017
Hello mark

Instead of ad libbing and doing it badly, I suggest a few seconds of research and source-posting which is much more useful

"Asteroid laser ablation is a proposed method for deflecting asteroids, involving the use of a laser array to alter the orbit of an asteroid. Laser Ablation works by heating up a substance enough to allow gaseous material to eject, either through sublimation (solid to gas) or vaporization (liquid to gas)."

Thanx

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