the catastrophic event of an asteroid impact
Two asteroids passed between the orbits of the Earth and moon Wednesday, putting the spotlight on efforts to prevent a catastrophic asteroid impact. Image: Thinkstock

A pair of asteroids missed Earth by a cosmic whisker Wednesday. The close encounter with the asteroids was considered a warning shot across the bow by astronauts and scientists planning a global response to the asteroid threat. Recent advances in space-based telescopes have made Earthlings more aware of a swarm of asteroids, or “near-earth objects.” An asteroid striking Earth is inevitable, say most scientists. NASA is stepping up efforts to locate and track asteroids to learn more about how to deflect a catastrophic event. The Obama administration has asked the space agency to investigate the feasibility of a manned mission to a nearby asteroid, perhaps by 2019.

Asteroids invade Earth’s personal space

Two small asteroids passed through the space between the Earth and moon Wednesday. Donald Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near Earth Network, told CNN that such events happen every day that humans aren’t aware of. What makes Wednesday’s asteroid encounter noteworthy is that the two rocks, between 20 and 60 feet in diameter, were spotted en route. NASA said the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Ariz., detected the asteroids Sunday morning during routine scanning. Yeomans told CNN Earth needs more, larger telescopes to track objects that come so close. He said humans were blissfully ignorant of the asteroid threat until scientists began looking for them in the 1990s and realized they were a problem.

Video simulates catastrophic event

A unified global response to the asteroid threat is imperative to the survival of civilization, according to the Association of Space Explorers. Canadian astronaut and ASE president Chris Hadfield told the Toronto Star that Earth is “rolling the dice that the big one is not coming right away.” The ASE submitted a report to the United Nations in 2008 that outlined a plan to deal with the asteroid threat. The report said existing technology is capable of deflecting a threatening asteroid. One approach smashes a spacecraft into an asteroid, slowing it down enough so Earth can pass the impact point before it arrives. Planning for such a mission would have to begin 10 to 18 years before the predicted collision. The video below shows what could happen.

NASA planning human spaceflight to asteroid

A manned mission to an asteroid by 2025 is being studied. The project is part of a plan to revamp human spaceflight submitted by the Obama administration earlier this year. The Houston Chronicle reports that despite the asteroid threat, Congress is fighting the president’s plan in favor of a more glamorous mission to the Moon. But Lockheed Martin, which has a NASA contract to build the Orion spacecraft, is proposing a mission to a nearby asteroid by 2019. The objective of the mission would be to learn more about asteroids to better understand how to prevent them from striking Earth. The mission would send two astronauts on a six-month, 16 million-mile round trip.



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