Kemo D. (kemo_d7) wrote,
Kemo D.

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Dark Future

What To Do Before the Asteroid Strikes


The doomsday rock is out there. It’s just a matter of time... In 2004, as a massive tsunami roiled through the Indian Ocean killing hundreds of thousands of people, a dozen or so scientists quietly confronted an impending disaster potentially even more lethal.


They had inside intelligence that a chunk of rock and metal, roughly 1,300 feet wide, was hurtling toward a possible collision with the most populated swath of Earth—Europe, India, and Asia. Furiously crunching numbers on their computers, the researchers put the odds of impact in the year 2029 at those of hitting the number in a game of roulette: 1 in 37.


In 2029 the asteroid, dubbed Apophis—derived from the Egyptian god Apep, the destroyer who dwells in eternal darkness—will zoom closer to Earth than the world’s communications satellites do. And April 13, 2036, it will return—this time with a 1-in-45,000 chance of hitting somewhere on a line stretching from the Pacific Ocean near California to Central America.


Though too small to end civilization—unlike the asteroid that may have doomed the dinosaurs—Apophis could pack a punch comparable to a large nuclear weapon.


Traveling at 28,000 miles per hour, it would heat up as it passed through Earth’s atmosphere, turning the dark rock into a fiery sun as it arced across the sky. Then it would either explode just aboveground—as one most likely did in 1908, leveling a vast forest in the Tunguska region of Siberia—or gouge a crater 20 times its size.


“If it hit London, there would be no London,” says Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who had closely followed the discussion of the potential 2029 impact. Slamming into the ocean, Apophis could create a tsunami dwarfing the one that killed more than 200,000 people around Indonesia.


So what would we have done if Apophis were on a collision course with Earth in 2029? Once Schweickart plotted the asteroid’s potential landfall, he suddenly realized the threat’s political and legal implications. If a city-busting rock were heading toward Iran, would the United States take the lead and spend billions of dollars to stop it? By nudging an asteroid off course, a probe would send it on a new trajectory. What if the probe could not complete the maneuver and shifted the threat elsewhere?


Such concerns led the ex-astronaut and Air Force pilot to tap members of an exclusive club he founded called the Association of Space Explorers—men and women who have, briefly, been near-Earth objects themselves. “This group of people can get the attention of national leaders all over the world,” Schweickart says.


This January, the group wined and dined donors at a fund-raiser in
Oakland, California, and they recently held a workshop in France, the first in a series to hash out a draft United Nations treaty to cope with the asteroid threat. To Schweickart, a matter of life and death trumps space science: “Do we really need to know more about a moon of Jupiter compared with being prepared to protect life on Earth?”


That attitude is bound to irritate a lot of space scientists. Yeomans, for example, insists that the three most important things to do are “find ’em early, find ’em early, and find ’em early.” NASA researchers have their own plan, the Near-Earth Object Program—the agency’s program to spot 90 percent of all potentially hazardous asteroids more than two-thirds of a mile wide that might hit Earth in the foreseeable future. 

Amateur astronomers, long major players in ascertaining the exact orbits of asteroids, are likely to play less and less of a role as professionals turn their powerful telescopes to the objects once considered too mundane for academics to study at all.


One way or another, astronomers say they intend to find every sizable rock that might be rushing at Earth. By 2020, we should know whether we need to save ourselves from going the way of the dinosaurs. “We take our snapshot now,” Spahr says, “and we’ll be good for centuries.”

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)

Tags: astronomy, news, science
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