Asteroids are probably a threat. Maybe?
by Fraser Cain
|Astronomers release a warning almost every year that a space rock has some outside chance of striking the Earth, and then revise their estimates shortly afterwards thanks to more observations.|
As automated asteroid searches continue to search the sky, potential planet smashers are going to be spotted quite regularly. Astronomers will provide conservative calculations, and a jaded public will treat each announcement with even more skepticism. When the 37th potential killer asteroid is announced, it’ll make little more than a blip in the general media—that’s understandable.
The unspoken goal for finding asteroids is to prevent one of them from ever striking the Earth and causing damage. In theory, the sooner you find a killer asteroid, the longer you have to adjust its orbit and save the Earth from destruction. If a collision is only a couple of months away, there’s little to do but prepare for the worst. But if it’s years or even decades away, spacecraft could be launched to nudge the asteroid into a less hazardous trajectory.
Astronomers are going to keep a watchful eye on the sky, to alert governments and the public to any future risks. But the problem is that astronomers deal in probabilities. They won’t say a certain asteroid will hit the Earth (like in Armageddon); instead they’ll say that it can hit the Earth.
That it may hit the Earth.
Will governments and space agencies be decisive enough to spend billions of dollars changing an asteroid’s orbit when they aren’t sure it’s even necessary? The longer you wait, the better the calculations become, but the less time you have to defend against it. With more data, astronomers will likely be tracking dozens of potential Earth-crossers with varying risks and dates that they’ll strike our planet. How do we decide which asteroids need to be moved and which can wait?
|How do we decide which asteroids need to be moved and which can wait?|
I don’t think we’re ever going to have a clear-cut challenge that will unite humanity against a common threat. If we did, it would probably only be months away and there’d be little we could do about it. Just take a look at global warming. Even though the evidence seems to be saying that humans have warmed the planet a degree in the last century, the worldwide response is denial and procrastination.
So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know if governments and space agencies can really get organized and decisive around such a nebulous threat (the threat is real, though, with the potential for unlimited damage). Investing in basic research is probably the best solution; better funding for observatories to discover and map asteroid trajectories; new propulsion systems that could help push an asteroid out of the way. Maybe if engineers deliver better solutions, it will help procrastinating governments take action at the last minute.