Issue number 2727
The 26 September 2009 issue of NewScientist has an article and editorial on NEOs. The article is on a table-top scenario exercise conducted by the U.S. government on response to a potential Earth-threatening NEO. The editorial (listed here first) discusses this exercise.
Preparing for an asteroid strike
23 September 2009
Now we have seen the results of the first exercise ever to test plans for what to do if an asteroid is on collision course with Earth (see "It's behind you!"), and they do not inspire confidence. We still have a long way to go before we can say we are prepared for this cosmic threat.
Improved early-warning capabilities are one cost-effective solution. There are telescopes on the drawing board that could find objects as small as 140 metres in diameter. That's a big advance on what we can do now, even if objects 30 to 50 metres across are more numerous and therefore arguably more dangerous.
There are telescopes on the drawing board that could find objects as small as 140 metres in diameter
More in-depth exercises are needed too, to hone our plans for communication and coordination should a city find itself in the target zone of an incoming asteroid.
Better still, of course, would be having the capability to fend off dangerous asteroids. It has long been recognised that the quick and dirty way to do this is to explode a nuclear bomb nearby to blast the asteroid off-course. That means we should revisit the international treaties that prohibit the launching of nukes into space, and try to come up with carefully drafted wording to allow their use if an asteroid threatens.
Whatever action is taken needs to be proportionate to the risk. The likelihood of being mashed by a skyscraper-sized object is tiny compared to the risk of routine insults from hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters of entirely terrestrial origin. Last year such events killed 236,000 people and caused damage worth $181 billion.
Resources are finite, and any plans to construct cosmic defences need to be measured against down-to-earth goals. When assessing the case for a better census of dangerous asteroids and their orbits, for example, let's not forget that this could also help us understand how our solar system came to be.
Asteroid attack: putting Earth's defences to the test
23 September 2009
Selections from the article...
IT LOOKS inconsequential enough, the faint little spot moving leisurely across the sky. The mountain-top telescope that just detected it is taking it very seriously, though. It is an asteroid, one never seen before. Rapid-survey telescopes discover thousands of asteroids every year, but there's something very particular about this one. The telescope's software decides to wake several human astronomers with a text message they hoped they would never receive. The asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. It is the size of a skyscraper and it's big enough to raze a city to the ground. Oh, and it will be here in three days.
Far-fetched it might seem, but this scenario is all too plausible. Certainly it is realistic enough that the US air force recently brought together scientists, military officers and emergency-response officials for the first time to assess the nation's ability to cope, should it come to pass.
They were asked to imagine how their respective organisations would respond to a mythical asteroid called Innoculatus striking the Earth after just three days' warning. The asteroid consisted of two parts: a pile of rubble 270 metres across which was destined to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa, and a 50-metre-wide rock heading, in true Hollywood style, directly for Washington DC.
The exercise, which took place in December 2008, exposed the chilling dangers asteroids pose. Not only is there no plan for what to do when an asteroid hits, but our early-warning systems - which could make the difference between life and death - are woefully inadequate. The meeting provided just the wake-up call organiser Peter Garreston had hoped to create. He has long been concerned about the threat of an impact. "As a taxpayer, I would appreciate my air force taking a look at something that would be certainly as bad as nuclear terrorism in a city, and potentially a civilisation-ending event," he says.
This area will cover relevant news of the threat to the planet from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) including concepts and designs for mitigation. All opinions are those of the author.
23 September 2009
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