If a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a tornado is coming your way, it will inevitably cause a significant amount of damage, but at least you could have the chance to get out of harms way. But how would you evacuate in the event of a natural disaster from outer space, capable of wiping out entire species in a relatively short amount of time? Is the potential for an asteroid colliding with earth one of our planet’s greatest threats?
“Sooner or later we will get… a minor or major impact,” says Rolf Densing, head of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. Densing explained that even though we may not be alive to see it happen, “the risk that Earth will get hit in a devastating event one day is very high.”
Asteroid sizes range from just a few millimeters to over 6 miles in length, which astrophysicists believe is the size of the space rock that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago. What’s worse is that if one of these gigantic asteroids were to enter Earth’s atmosphere again, there’s really nothing we would be able to do to stop it.
“We are not ready to defend ourselves” in the event that an asteroid begins falling towards our planet, said Densing. “We have no active planetary defense measures.”
We know that the largest types of asteroids – the kind that are capable of wiping out all life on our planet – strike Earth about once every 100 million years. But even though we have a general idea of the impact frequency of these behemoth space rocks, there are still many things we don’t know. How big will it be exactly? Will it wipe out all of humanity, or will there be survivors? And by the time a giant asteroid does begin falling towards Earth, will we have the technology to intercept it or destroy it?
Over the past several years, NASA has been working on a program called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which locates objects in space, like asteroids, and issues warnings when an impact with Earth is possible (RELATED: NASA only has a 10 percent chance of detecting asteroids before they hit Earth.) Likewise, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency is in the process of acquiring $450 million to send an advanced telescope into space in order to track giant space rocks that could potentially collide with our planet.
But studying and tracking asteroids near Earth is only half of the battle, because all of the data in the world wouldn’t be able to stop one of these rocky behemoths from slamming into our world. We would still be faced with the task of either pushing the asteroid out of the way or blowing it to pieces.
Jason P. Dworkin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland says that the action taken to intercept an asteroid depends on certain factors, like how much time we have and the asteroid’s shape. “If it was up to me, I would send a rocket with some titanium dioxide on it and paint it white, and have that Yarkovksy effect accelerate, and move it away from the Earth,” Dworkin explained. He adds, “If you have something like 50 years, that could deflect it enough, and it might be a whole lot simpler than sending up nuclear weapons.”
Given the numerous threats that we are already trying to deal with today, it’s understandable that the potential of an asteroid hitting Earth is not something that is often discussed. However, it is important that we not only continue to track asteroids floating around in outer space, but also that we continue to develop new technology that one day could be used to save the human race.