Everything you wanted to know about asteroids…

Former astronauts and physicists were on the panel discussing asteroid tracking and planetary defence Sofia Mikton

Former astronauts and physicists were on the panel discussing asteroid tracking and planetary defence Sofia Mikton

…but were afraid to ask, was answered by a panel of physicists and former astronauts ahead of Asteroid Day last week.

A panel talk last Friday at Arendt House in the build-up to Asteroid Day on 30 June addressed a diverse range of topics, from mapping asteroids in outer space to chasing them here on earth. 

The three most important things to know about asteroids  

“Find them early, find them early, and find them early,” said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut and co-founder of the B612 asteroid planetary defence program. Formed in 2002, B612 is committed to defending earth from asteroids and other near-earth objects. At the time of its foundation, B612 was alone in its mission. Since then however, the organisation has made great strides in bringing asteroid impact hazard to the forefront of the public’s attention, Asteroid Day being a prime example.  

If an asteroid were to hit tomorrow, Schweickart explained, there is virtually nothing we could do to deter it. Fortunately, not only has no news of such an occurrence been announced, but scientists working in the field of asteroid mitigation plan years in advance to look for potential threats. If an asteroid is 10 years away, changing its orbital path just slightly will allow its trajectory to miss earth by several minutes in 10 years' time. 

Turn left at the next asteroid: Google Maps for space rocks  

Ed Lu, seasoned NASA astronaut and co-founder of the B612 foundation, is currently working on an Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping (ADAM) project that aims to create a comprehensive map of our solar system’s asteroids. As the cost of operating in space steadily declines, and the prospect of interplanetary travel increases, the need for an accurate asteroid map is more necessary than ever. For countries like Luxembourg which hopes to become a key player in space-business ventures such as asteroid mining, asteroids will first need to be made readily navigable.  

Currently, an estimated 99% percent of asteroids in our solar system are uncharted. This is what Lu and colleagues are hoping to change. Having previously worked on projects at Google Earth and Google Maps, Lu aims to create a similar style of dynamic map for asteroids. His vision includes a map where data can be continuously entered, and where users can not only see the current location, size and composition of asteroids, but also the direction and speed they are moving. Schweickart joked that perhaps one day, the map could also include available Airbnb facilities.  

Accomplishing an ambitious mapping task like this is challenging enough. To take into account the new asteroids that are being discovered each day, is to complicate the job even more. Over time, this flood of data is only going to increase, as telescope capabilities and asteroid-tracking technologies continue to improve. To handle overflows of information like this, a comprehensive computational program will need to be developed; one that can be updated rapidly and in accordance with new data. When ADAM is more complete, Lu hopes to open it to the public. The implications for the project are vast, and Lu believes the map will be instrumental in the future of space exploration.

If an asteroid falls, and nobody is there to see it, does it still look cool?  

Mark Boslough, planetary impact physicist and avid asteroid tracker, said that this should never happen. The fact that during a time of such rapid technological advancement, the necessary tools and people are often not there to observe the near-earth objects that do strike earth, is a missed opportunity for the scientific community. When spotted in advance, we do possess the tools and understanding to properly prepare for and track these events--and should learn to utilise these tools to the best of our capability.  

Unfortunately, there are some occasions that are more difficult to prepare for. For example, when the Chelyabinsk meteor struck Russia in 2013, even with available technology, no one was able to detect the meteor’s arrival ahead of time. The good news is that not only is the technology for tracking similar near-earth objects continuously improving, but events like these are rare, occurring only every 50 to 100 years on average, and most often landing in the ocean.  

Responding to a question from the audience, Boslough said it was only through social media that NASA had been made aware of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor. Boslough only heard of the news, when just hours after the meteor strike, a Russian friend posted a video on Facebook. Immediately after hearing the news, Boslough flew to Russia and was the first American scientist to arrive at the site. If a comprehensive app for tracking and observing asteroids were to exist, the potential results could be invaluable. 

Political decisions with an impact  

Dorin Prunariu was the first Romanian in space and has since worked on bringing asteroid-related threats to the attention of politicians and international governing bodies. All the panellists agreed with Prunariu’s assessment that the most likely reason for an asteroid-related accident on earth will not be because we lack the technology to defend ourselves, but rather due to a geopolitical blunder. Prunariu argued that if they could, politicians might debate until the very day a catastrophic asteroid arrived.  

Political discussions surrounding planetary defence are inherently complex, given the ambiguous and international nature of the threat. Questions about which countries and organisations should bare financial responsibility, and which should organize and enact prevention measures, are just a few of the potential complications. Members of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), including Prunariu himself, often have the power to enact change. Being among the few who have gone to outer space, members of the ASE have a certain amount of sway with politicians at forums such as the UN.  

So far, the creation of organisations like the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), and events like Asteroid Day, have helped expand the scope of asteroid impact awareness, both among the general public and within political circles. While there is still much work to be done, in comparing asteroid-related dialogue happening in 2002, when B612 was formed, with what is happening today, we seem to be headed in the right trajectory.