The Celestial Shooting Gallery

by Michael Mackowski

APTOPIX Russia Meteorite

Outer space may literally be mostly empty space, but our solar system is full of large and small chunks of rocks. A few days ago, a couple of these rocks made a close pass to our home planet. One object, called asteroid DA14, was large enough to be detected about a year ago. It came within 17,200 miles of the Earth’s surface, within the ring of geostationary communications satellites we all rely on. There was enough information on this object to know in advance that it would come close, but miss us. Still, this asteroid was the closest large object to pass by the Earth that we saw ahead of time.

Meanwhile a smaller object, perhaps the size of a school bus, whizzed over Russia, and when it exploded several miles above the ground, the shock wave was strong enough to smash windows over a large area, injuring over a thousand people from flying glass. This object was too small to be detected in advance, at least with the technology we are using today.

These two events were completely unrelated, but it is a reminder that space is full of big rocks that will eventually strike the Earth with serious consequences. And we are in no way ready for this. We have made progress in detecting these potentially hazardous objects but more needs to be done. A pair of private companies has come along in the last year that actually intend to capture and mine these close approaching asteroids. Their first objective is to identify and catalog them. They are most interested in the objects that come closest to Earth since those will be easiest to capture. They are also the ones that most threaten us, making these endeavors a valuable public service.

But more needs to be done. Governments are probably the only entity with sufficient resources to actually implement a “planetary defense” system. NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, a project led by the University of Arizona, will be launched in a few years to bring back a sample of a near-Earth asteroid. This kind of research is needed to better understand the nature of these objects. This is required if we ever expect to deflect the path of such an object on a collision course with Earth.

The extraterrestrial visitors of February 14 and 15 were reminders of the reality of this threat. All of the damage done in Russia was just due to the shock wave. Consider what might have resulted if that rock made a direct hit on a populated area. The public needs to support research and development to catalog all threatening objects and develop the technology to deflect and perhaps even utilize their resources for the betterment of society.

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