Wednesday, August 25, 2004

To Prepare or not to Prepare...................

......As the readers of this blog may be aware, I do occasionally freak out about asteroids or other space debris raining down on our planet and causing all kinds of trouble. Most of the astronomy links I have listed to the right are concerning asteroids or comets in some way. I think my concern for asteroids was generated a few years ago when watching a particularly dense viewing of the Leonid meteor shower at a friends house. After watching the show, I remember thinking- "geez, that was a lot of crap flying around at one time, and it was moving DAMN fast. I'm sure nothing like that could hit us though, right? Lemme check......oh-so we don't really know do we...well then..

Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit has a column up today at Tech Central Station where he discusses disaster preparedness, and in the article he describes how the large number of amateur astronomers out there has provided a major resource in looking out for potentially dangerous asteroids.

The US Congress did create a mandate for Nasa for locating at least 90 percent of the estimated 1,000 asteroids and comets that approach the Earth and are larger than 1 kilometer (about 2/3-mile) in diameter, by the end of the next decade.

Here's where we are as of August 24th-

Notice how the more we look in the skies, the more we find floating around up there. Not exactly comforting, but not chicken-little-sky-is-falling stuff either. Plus, unless we get a minimum of a decade warning if we do detect one that is on course to strike the planet, there isn't a whole lot we could about it.

Here are the current projects in development that are specifically designed to test our asteroid/comet mitigation abilities. The boldest on the drawing board at this time is the Don Quijote Mission. Using two spacecraft, Sancho and Hidalgo, both will be launched at the same time but Sancho will take a faster route. When it arrives at the target asteroid it will begin a seven-month campaign of observation and physical characterisation during which it will land penetrators and seismometers on the asteroid's surface to understand its internal structure.

Sancho will then watch as Hidalgo arrives and smashes into the asteroid at very high speed. This will provide information about the behaviour of the internal structure of the asteroid during an impact event as well as excavating some of the interior for Sancho to observe. After the impact, Sancho and telescopes from Earth will monitor the asteroid to see how its orbit and rotation have been affected.

A good start, but I still feel that out of the billion dollar budget Nasa has put forward for space exploration, there is simply not anywhere near enough priority placed on this issue. None of the other projects NASA is currently working on will amount to anything once we discover a big one headed our way.

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