NASA had the opportunity to make the case for planetary defense at last week’s meeting of the House Science Committee. Unfortunately, as Jeff Foust reports, NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden (USMC-ret.) failed to make that case.
In fact, General Bolden actually pleaded with Congress not “pour money into NEO detection and characterization,” saying “that would not be the right thing to do.”
NASA has powered down the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity as a precautionary measure due to a solar flare.
In 2003, a solar storm damaged a radiation instrument on the Mars orbiter Odyssey. NASA does not believe the radiation from this flare poses any danger to Curiosity but is being extra cautious due to recent computer problems with the $1.6 billion rover.
This shutdown illustrates the need for good space-weather forecasting for in-space operations, but space weather also affects the Earth. It will be important for future space travelers as well.
The proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, currently under study by the European Space Agency and the Advanced Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, now has a target: Didymos, a binary asteroid scheduled to pass within 11 million km of Earth in 2022.
A large meteor strike has been reported in Chalyabinsk, Russia, about 1500 kilometers east of Moscow. Reports indicate major damage to buildings, including a roof collapse at a zinc factory, and at least 102 people injured, many from broken glass, according to Associated Press.
The impact reportedly occurred at 9:20 AM local time, or 0320 GMT (10:20 PM EST).
[Update:Russia Today now puts the injuries at 950, including 159 children. 110 people are reported to be hospitalized. Nearly 3,000 buildings are reported to be damaged, including 34 medical facilities and 361 schools. There are no reports of fatalities yet, about half the windows in the city are broken, so there is danger from the cold.]
[Three impact craters have been found, one about 6 meters in diameter. Most of the damage appears to have been from the sonic boom. Based on data from five infrasound monitoring stations and calculations by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, initial size estimates for the object have been revised upward. The current estimate puts the object, prior to entering the Earth's atmosphere, at 49-55 feet in diameter (15-17 meters) and mass 7,000 to 10,000 tons. The energy released is estimated at nearly 500 kilotons. The event lasted for 32.5 seconds from atmospheric entry to the airborne disintegration. This is considered to be a 100-year event, which can be expected to happen about once in a a Century. Still, it could have been a lot worse.]
[It now appears this object came in on a different trajectory and was not related to 2012 DA14.]
It’s shocking that Near Earth Objects, which have so much potential for destruction, get so little respect. The recent National Academy of Sciences report on NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, which dissed asteroid missions, is a good example. Perhaps this event will serve as a wakeup call for beltway insiders.
The airblast from the Chelyabinsk meteor is estimated at 300-500 kilotons. That’s equivalent to the yield of two or three Minuteman missile warheads. Fortunately, the blast occurred at high altitude (10-15 miles above the ground). If the meteor had been a bit stronger (more iron and less rock), it would have held together a a bit longer. The blast would have been lower, casualties and destruction much more severe.
One disturbing aspect of this event is the fact that Russia large military installations near Chelyabinsk. A large meteor impact near a military base could potentially be mistaken for a nuclear first strike, setting off a chain reaction.
On February 15, an asteroid half the size of a football field will fly past Earth, only 17,200 miles above our planet’s surface.
This is the first time an object this large has been seen so close to Earth since NEO sky surveys began in the 1990′s.
Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered by amateur astronomers at the La Sagra Observatory in Spain on February 22, 2012. Orbital calculations show there’s no danger of 2012 DA14 actually hitting Earth, but it’s a pity we don’t have a quick-reaction sortie vehicle or tug that could get into position for a close look as it whizzes by. Such a vehicle would have a wide range commercial and military applications; the occassional rare science opportunity like this would be just an added bonus.
The Virtual Telescope Project will be holding a live coverage event starting at 22:00 Universal Time (5:00 PM EST, 2:00 PM PST) on February 15.
A cosmic catastrophe may have occurred in our part of the galaxy less than 1300 years ago. A similar event today could have damaging effects on our technological civilization.
A new paper by astronomers Valeri Hambaryan and Ralph Neuhӓuser at the University of Jena, Germany suggests that a short-duration gamma-ray burst from the merging of two stellar remnants may have caused an intense blast of high-energy radiation that hit the Earth in the 8th century. The paper, A Galactic short gamma-ray burst as cause for the 14C peak in AD 774/5, is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The OSIRS-REx mission, developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, is scheduled for launch in 2016.
This asteroid sample-return mission is interesting for a number of reasons. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer. This marks the first time that resource prospecting and planetary defense have been prominently highlighted, along with science, as part of a NASA unmanned space mission. This should become the standsard model for all future missions.
Also interesting is the way OSIRIS-REx team members have tested their experiments in a low-gravity environment.
The European Space Agency is seeking research ideas to help guide development of a joint US-European asteroid deflection mission now under study.
The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission would consist of two space probes, which would be launched toward a binary asteroid.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, would collide with the smaller of the two asteroids, while the Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) surveys the asteroids in detail, before and after the collision. DART is being designed by the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Laboratory in the US, with support from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and JPL. AIM is being designed by ESA.
The DART mission would also include ground-based observations to measure the deflection independently of AIM. This ensures that the DART impact would return return useful data even if AIM failed. Working together, the two probes would return data on momentum transfer and characteristics of the resulting crater.
ESA is seeking concepts for ground- and space-based investigations to improve understanding of high-speed collisions between man-made and natural objects in space.
The AIDA design study is a successor to the Don Quijote study, which ESA completed in July 2005. Like AIDA, Don Quijote involved two probes: an orbiter called Sancho and an impactor called Hidalgo. Sancho would arrive at the asteroid several months prior to Hidalgo to accurately measure the body’s position, shape, mass, and gravity field.
Don Quijote differed from AIDA in planning to target a single asteroid, of about 500 meters diameter, rather than a binary asteroid. Construction of the Don Quixote probes could have begun in 2006, if the project had been approved. Unfortunately, that did not happen. We hope AIDA will have better luck.
We look forward to the day when we can show a similar picture of all asteroids visited by manned spacecraft.
That seems like a tall order, but remember — none of unmanned missions existed just a few years ago.
We can rebuild the space program. We have the technology. Johnson Space Center has done advanced concept studies of a deep space ship, Nautilus X, that could be built within the agency’s current budget. Instead, NASA spends its money on the politically mandated Space Launch System and Orion capsule, which duplicate capabilities already available (or soon to be available) from companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
Why should we be interested in the asteroids, when there are more alluring destinations like Mars? Well, it wasn’t Mars that killed the dinosaurs. We’re reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, comrade, but war is interested in you!”
A cool video from the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Unfortunately, the deflection technology, which they mention at the end, is not even in development. Protecting the Earth’s population from a possible global extinction event is not a goal whose value penetrates to politicians and wonks in DC.
The committee has seen little evidence that a current stated goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program — namely, to visit an asteroid by 2015 — has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community. Although asteroids remain important subjects for both US and international robotic exploration and study, on the international front, there appears to be continued enthusiasm for a mission to the Moon but not for an asteroid mission.
This statement is deeply flawed. NASA works for the American people, not its own workforce or the international community — and if the committee saw little evidence that the Americans find asteroids compelling, it simply wasn’t looking. Bookstores, documentaries, and Hollywood movies attest to widespread public interest in the asteroid-impact hazard.
Obviously, the NAS committee failed to make the connection between NASA’s manned asteroid mission and planetary defense. The committee implicitly assumes that asteroids are merely subjects of scientific study rather than natural hazards of potential resources. That is a common failing in the scientific community — and one reason why the NAS is the wrong organization to ask for recommendations on space policy. Of course, President Obama and NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden have failed to publicly make the connection as well. There is plenty of blame to go around here.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the future of human spaceflight — and perhaps the future of the human race — will depend on people outside of Washington, DC.
The goal of the program, called SpaceView, is to provide more diverse data to the Space Surveillance Network, a worldwide network of 29 radar and optical telescopes which observes and catalogues space objects to spot potential collisions. SpaceView plans to engage amateur astronomers by purchasing remote access existing amateur telescopes or providing telescopes to selected astronomers. The telescopes would still be available for amateur astronomy when not in use by the SpaceView program.
Vitaly Lopota, head of the Russian space firm Energia RSC, has reportedly proposed developing a new rocket to deflect Earth-approaching asteroids. Lopota’s statements were made in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta as reported by the Chinese news service xinhaunet.
According to Xinhaunet, “Lopota said existing Russian rocket carriers with RD-171 engines could be redesigned to produce a rocket capable of destroying an asteroid.” The new rocket could be ready in 3-5 years.
Lapota implies that the RD-170 engine is the only one large enough to do the job. “‘We call them Tsar Engines, which no other country possesses,’ Lopota said, referring to Russian artifacts, the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell, which were the world’s largest in their time.”
These statements make little sense. A variety of techniques have been proposed for asteroid mitigation. There is no agreement over which is best, in part due to our lack of detailed knowledge about the general population of Near Earth asteroids and in part due to technical uncertainties in the techniques themselves, none of which have actually been tested in space. More research and development is needed, but no expert has seriously suggested that the size of existing launch vehicles (or rocket engines) is a critical problem.
Lapota is apparently using planetary defense as a lever, hoping to shake loose government funding for a product Energia wishes sell, whether it is relevant to the problem or not. That is hardly surprising, given the desperate straights of Energia and other Russian space companies in recent years. Perhaps he’s learned from the example of US politicians who exhibit similar behavior in calling for development of the superheavy Space Launch System.
A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics has devised a new method of deflecting Earth-approaching asteroids. Previous work has shown that an asteroid might be deflected by a swarm of smart pebbles. MIT’s Sung Wook Paek has expanded on that idea by replacing the pebbles with paintballs.
Asteroids are normally dark in color. Painting an asteroid white would alter the albedo, or reflectivity, of the asteroid. That, in turn, would alter the tiny, but measurable, thrust which sunlight imparts on the asteroid. Over a long period of time, that change in thrust could produce a significant change in the asteroid’s trajectory. A warning time of approximately 20 years would be required for this method to work.
Six Italian scientists and a former government official have been sentenced to six-year prison terms for failing to predict an earthquake. The charge was practice. The scientists were effectively tried for scientific malpractice, although the prosecution did not use that term.
The implications of this verdict for scientific research in Italy are alarming. Malpractice suits have had a devastating effect on the medical industry. We hope this sort of thing doesn’t spread to other countries.
We’re all for holding government officials accountable for their failures, but this is ridiculous. No one can know the unknowable. Even meteorologists make mistakes, and weather forecasting is a much better developed field than earthquake prediction.
This verdict could have implications for planetary defense. A major asteroid impact could have effects felt on planet-wide scale. A scientist who fails to predict an asteroid impact might conceivably be held accountable in any country, including Italy. Such fears might cause scientists to avoid the field or to “cry wolf” by always erring on the side of caution, leading to an ultimate loss of public trust.
One prediction we’re willing to stand behind: there won’t be a lot of international seismology conferences held in Rome in the near future.
A satellite tracker’s analysis of a meteor seen over the United Kingdom on September 21 suggests that it was an Aten asteroid, not space debris as originally believed.
Aten asteroids orbit the Sun at an average distance less than 1 AU (in other words, inside Earth’s orbit). Because their orbits are highly eccentric, most Aten asteroids cross the Earth’s orbit when approaching aphelion. This makes Aten asteroids potentially hazardous objects.
The asteroid 99942 Apophis is an Aten asteroid. Apophis, which was discovered in 2004, made news because it is large enough to be dangerous and was calculated to have a significant probability (2.7%) of hitting the Earth in 2029. Later estimates reduced that probability greatly but there is still sufficient uncertainty that some observers would like additional data.The Russian space agency Roscosmos recently announced plans for an unmanned mission to place a radio beacon on Apophis.
Aten asteroids are not only dangerous to the Earth, they are also difficult to detect and observe. Because Atens spend most of their time inside the Earth’s orbit, their sky position, as seen from the Earth, is close to the Sun. The brightness of the daytime sky interferes with observations by ground-based telescopes. Spaceborne telescopes don’t have the bright sky to contend with, but they have insrument-safety considerations that limit their ability to observe objects close to the Sun. If a space telescope like Hubble was accidentally pointed at the Sun, it would burn out a camera that costs hundreds of millions of dollars (and can no longer be replaced, since the Shuttle is retired). So, operators impose strict limits on telescope pointing to prevent it from getting too near the Sun.
One solution to this problem is the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, being developed by astronomers at the Planetary Science Institute and The Citadel. The Atsa Suborbital Observatory is a fairly small telescope, based on a 14-inch Celestron reflector, which will fly aboard the XCOR Lynx Mark III. Because the Atsa telescope is easily serviceable, it can be pointed very close to the Sun with little danger. Accidentally burning out a $500 CCD chip that can replaced the next day is not a catastrophe like damaging the Hubble.
In other news, a meteor the size of a car landed in the Martinez Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are no reports of casualties or damage, but this is another reminder of the fact that our Earth is constantly being hit by objects from space. Sooner or later, we will be hit by something much larger and more dangerous.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is planning to place an automated tracking beacon on the asteroid 99942 Apophis, according to a report in Russia Today.
Apophis is a 270-meter asteroid named after the ancient Egyptian god of darkness (and Stargate villain). Apophis was discovered in 2004. Initial calculations showed that it had a 1:223 chance of hitting Earth in 2029, although that estimate was later reduced. There is still sufficient uncertainty that some observers would like additional data.
In 2008, the Planetary Society, Spaceworks Engineering, and SpaceDev proposed a radio-beacon mission called Foresight to rendezvous with Apophis. No funding was forthcoming, however.
The B612 Foundation’s privately funded deep-space mission, Sentinel, received major support this week from prominent members of the business and financial community.
Steve Krausz,general partner at US Venture Partners; James Leszczenski, engineering manager at Facebook; and Shervin Pishevar, managing partner at Menlo Ventures have joined the Foundation’s Founding Circle, which contributes substantial funding to the mission and pledges continued support in areas of finance, technology and science.
The B612 Foundation has also received new support from the Margaret Jonsson Family Foundation of Dallas, Texas and the William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation of San Francisco.
The Discovery Channel has done a lot to make the public aware of the dangers of asteroid impacts, through numerous documentaries. Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel, is doing more than just scaremongering, though. Discovery has partnered with Lowell Observatory to build the 170-inch Discovery Channel Telescope, which saw first light in April of this year.
The Discovery Channel Telescope will spend part of its time looking for potentially dangerous near-Earth objects. It won’t be hunting alone, though. Planetary Resources and the B612 Foundation are planning space-based telescopes to search for near-Earth asteroids. It’s good to see so the private sector stepping up to the plate on this, since politicians have shown so little interest.
A private foundation is taking another step to discover asteroids which pose a potential threat to Earth.
The B612 Foundation, founded by astronauts Rusty Schweickert and Ed Lu, has announced the Sentinel mission, a solar orbiting infrared telescope designed to discover and catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters. Sentinel will be launched into what the B612 Foundation calls a Venus-like orbit, which significantly improves the efficiency of asteroid discovery during its 5.5 year mission.
The Sentinel telescope is innovative in a number of ways. First, is that it will be the first privately financed mission to deep space. Second, it will be a smart spacecraft. Data will be processed onboard by asteroid-detection software. This minimizes the amount of data that needs to be downloaded back to Earth. Onboard processing will be important for future low-cost deep-space missions in order to reduce network operating costs. Instead of being in constant contact with Earth, Sentinel will report in once a week.
NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program is keeping a close eye on 2011 AG5, an Earth-crossing asteroid that could hit the Earth on February 5, 2040.
2011 AG5 is 140 meters in diameter. In the unlikely event of an impact, it would strike with the force of a 100-megaton bomb. NASA is sufficiently concerned that it held a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid Workshop at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center last month.
The probability of 2011 AG5 hitting Earth is currently estimated at 0.2%, but the estimate is still being refined. The probability will change when the asteroid passes through a gravitational keyhole on a pass by Earth in February 2023.
If 2011 AG5 is on a course toward Earth, further data could raise our certainty to 70%. Such data could be used to plan an intercept mission, which could occur either before or after the 2023 keyhole event.
Unfortunately, it’s currently impossible to observe 2011 AG5 because its relative position is too close to the Sun. It will not be possible for astronomers to observe 2011 AG5 again until fall of 2013.
Observing objects that appear close to the Sun will be one of the key missions for suborbital telescopes, such as the Atsa Suborbital Observatory which is slated to fly on the XCOR Lynx Mark III. The Atsa Observatory won’t be flying in time to help with the 2011 AG5 problem, but it will be valuable for studying similar asteroids in the future.
A robust plan for dealing with potentially hazardous asteroids will require a range of in-space capabilities, from suborbital observatories to deep-space intercept and deflection techniques.
Suborbital spacecraft are being developed in the private sector and do not require government investment – but what about the intercept and deflection problem?
Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who created the B612 Foundation to develop asteroid-deflection techniques, does not think NASA is doing enough. Schweickart discusses 2011 AG5 and possible deflection techniques in the following video.
Brilliant Pebbles was a system of ballistic-missile interceptors proposed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980′s. Brilliant Pebbles was a kinetic-energy interceptor. The name derives from the descriptive term of “smart rocks,” which was previously used to describe guided kinetic-energy weapons. Brilliant Pebbles took advantage of miniaturized electronics to make the interceptors much smarter, smaller, and cheaper to build – hence “pebbles” rather than “rocks.”
Now, two researchers from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland have suggested that smart pebbles might find a use against a different target, according to the New Scientist. At the Astrobiology Science Conference, held recently in Atlanta, Dr. Alison Gibbings and Dr. Massimiliano Vasile stated that a swarm of smart pebbles could be used to deflect an Earth-approaching asteroid.
According to Gibbings and Vasile, a 500-kilogram swarm of pebbles, each the size of a fingernail, could deflect the course of a 250-metre asteroid by almost 35,000 kilometers. The calculation assumes some advanced warning. The swarm would to hit the asteroid about eight years before the expected impact.
Dr. Vasile is also investigating the use of brilliant pebbles to remove space debris in Earth orbit.
NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes arrived at Kennedy Space Center on May 1. The two probes, built at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel MD and managed by Goddard Space Flight Center under the Living With a Star program, are scheduled for a predawn launch on August 23 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket.
The two probes will be enter into nearly identical, eccentric orbits that cover the entire radiation belt region, lapping each other several times over the course of the two-year mission. Observations from the two probes will enable the development of empirical and physics-based models for the radiation belts. The empirical models will be used by engineers to design radiation-hardened electronics, while the physics-based models will be used by forecasters to predict space weather and alert astronauts and spacecraft operators to potential hazards.
Due to their possible effects on Earth’s climate, supernovae have been viewed as potential killers and linked to past extinction events.
That may not be the whole story, however. A new study by Professor Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) suggests that supernovae are, on balance, good for life on Earth.
Examining the geological and astronomical record for the past 500 million years, Prof. Svensmark found that the diversity of the Earth’s ecosystem tended to be greater in eras when nearby supernovae were plentiful. Prof. Svensmark hypothesizes that this is because the colder climate caused by cosmic rays results in a greater variety of habitats between polar and equatorial regions and creates stress that prevents ecosystems from becoming locked into fixed patterns.
The picture is mixed, however. While supernovae have generally had positive effects on Earth’s biosystem, Svensmark says they have also caused prolonged glacial periods and sudden falls in sea level by 25 meters or more.