While the heavens were thought to be stable and unchanging for centuries, nothing can be farther from the truth now. Thanks to advances in both telescope and imaging technology, astronomers now know that the Earth exists in a cosmic shooting range inhabited by millions off asteroids, about a thousand of which come close enough to Earth to be labeled ‘potentially hazardous.’ On top of that, more are being discovered all the time.
Now, years after this troubling fact was first realized, space agencies are taking steps to build a planetary defense system.
In 1998, Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis, was that year’s biggest Hollywood hit thanks to its cast’s star power and the thought-provoking tale on an incoming doomsday asteroid, which a motley crew of hurriedly-trained astronauts must blow up before it hits and destroys civilization. While blowing up an asteroid is pretty much impossible, even undesirable, the idea of using explosives to save Earth does have merit. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced plans to send a mission to an asteroid to see if an impact can change the space rock’s path through the cosmos in the hope of deflecting an Earth-bound asteroid from a collision course with Earth.
However, the ESA is not alone in its asteroid-ramming ambitions.
Yesterday, it was announced that China was looking to develop its own asteroid deflector, one that uses sunlight to give it the power needed to smash into an asteroid and knock it off course and away from Earth. In a project being conducted at the Tsinghua University, scientists are working on a spacecraft design that will use massive solar sails that will act as giant mirrors to power it to a speed up up to around 50 miles per second, which is about 3 times faster than the fastest, conventionally-powered spacecraft.
The reason for concern? An asteroid called 99942 Apophis, a quarter mile wide asteroid that has a 1 in 250,000 chance of impacting the Earth in 2036.
While the thought of death by asteroid is normally not in most people’s minds, the possibility is certainly there, one only needs to look at the Earth itself for proof that we will be hit by a large asteroid in the future. However, thanks to technology, we humans stand a fighting chance should something like this ever happen in the future.
Problem: new asteroids are being discovered all the time and such advance warning may not always be possible, which means that the world would probably be helpless to do anything. When doomsday scenarios are considered, planners usually give months or even years advance notice time to come up with a plan to divert the colliding body and save the world. Unfortunately, asteroids can, literally, just pop out of the blackness of space and into our celestial neighborhood just a few days after discovery.
So, if scientists were to discover a doomsday asteroid on a collision course with Earth, would there be enough time to do anything about it or would we simply have to resign ourselves to a terrible fate and possibly go down in history like the dinosaurs?
It’s a terrible thought, but one that may just come true. All the more reason to keep scanning the skies for potentially dangerous asteroids.