News / Science & Technology

NASA Explores Technology to Face Asteroid Danger

Robotics and advanced SEP technologies like this artist's concept of an SEP-based spacecraft could one day find, rendezvous with, capture and relocate an asteroid to a stable point in the lunar vicinity.
Robotics and advanced SEP technologies like this artist's concept of an SEP-based spacecraft could one day find, rendezvous with, capture and relocate an asteroid to a stable point in the lunar vicinity.
Suzanne Presto
Asteroids - those millions of chunks of space rock, large and small, that drift and spin across our solar system - hold promise for space explorers even as they pose a threat to us on Earth.

When NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discussed the U.S. space agency's proposed 2014 budget with lawmakers in late April, he highlighted a new mission - a plan to capture an asteroid in deep space and bring it to the vicinity of the moon, where astronauts could later explore it.

"We are developing a process or technology that will come forward in the asteroid retrieval mission that will demonstrate that humans can, in fact, alter the path of an asteroid that's headed toward Earth," he said.

A key part of the planned mission, Bolden underscored, is to show that an asteroid's path can be diverted.

Watch Asteroid Initiative Animation (Courtesy: NASA)
Asteroid Threats
Earlier this year, a small meteor unexpectedly exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and produced a shockwave that shattered thousands of windows and injured more than 1,000 people. The same day, a well-tracked, 45-meter-wide asteroid called 2012 DA14 whizzed safely past Earth, closer than our geosynchronous satellites. It was a record close approach for something that size.

Experts say asteroids larger than 100 meters across strike the Earth's surface, on average, about once every 10,000 years, and there are no records of an asteroid killing anyone in modern history.

John Holdren, the U.S. president's assistant for science and technology, discussed asteroid threats at a hearing on Capitol Hill in March. He told lawmakers that given the rarity of large asteroid impacts, the potential loss of human life from such an event works out to fewer than 100 people per year, which he compared to 5 million deaths each year from tobacco.

"It doesn't look like a very big threat," Holdren said. "But, of course, that is not really a meaningful way to present a risk of this character, where you're talking about a low probability of a very big disaster, and in those sorts of situations, we tend to invest in insurance to reduce the likelihood of a disaster we would regard as intolerable."

Insurance, of course, was not an option for dinosaurs, which are believed to have been killed off 65 million years ago after a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid crashed into the Earth.

Holdren says an asteroid even a fraction of that size could undo life as we know it. "A one-kilometer asteroid would be carrying energy in the range of tens of millions of megatons.  That is as much or more energy as was in the combined arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War," he said. "An asteroid of that size, a kilometer or bigger, could plausibly end civilization." 
Tracking Asteroids
NASA estimates it has catalogued 95 percent of near-Earth asteroids that are wider than one kilometer. It says it has found nothing this size that poses a threat to our planet in the foreseeable future.

The space agency is now working to detect and track much smaller near-Earth objects, ones that are 140 meters in diameter or larger. The goal is to identify 90 percent of those by 2020.

That's where Lindley Johnson comes in. He is the program executive for the Near-Earth Objects Program at NASA headquarters in Washington. His office coordinates NASA-sponsored efforts to detect and track potentially hazardous asteroids, as well as comets.

"The first and most important thing, of course, is having the capability to find them early," Johnson explained. "You can't do anything about them unless you know that there is one out there that is a threat. So, that's our primary emphasis - finding them. If we do that job well, then the incidence of us actually being impacted are pretty rare." 
International Cooperation
Johnson was among hundreds of scientists who attended a United Nations conference on outer space in Vienna earlier this year. His working group recommended creating an international asteroid-warning network and a forum that brings various space agencies together to discuss collaborative approaches to counter dangerous asteroids.

Johnson said they also recommended bolstering disaster response, so national and international agencies could warn people about a potential strike, just as they do about hurricanes or tsunamis. Part of the reason people were injured in Chelyabinsk, he said, is that they did not know what to expect.  

"They didn't realize that with a meteor coming in like that, that there would be such a shockwave that windows would be broken out, so they saw the bright flash and ran to the window and were looking at the contrail when the shockwave hit," he said.

As of late April, nearly 10,000 near-Earth objects had been discovered, with about 1,400 of them classified as potentially hazardous.

Funding for NASA's Near-Earth Objects Program is about $20 million per year, reflecting a five-fold increase during President Barack Obama's administration. 

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Inocencio S. Santillan C. from: Huaraz Peru
May 03, 2013 8:18 PM
It is a fantastic program for to be fishing a asteroid, show us the adavnced technology in the planet, for my so fantastic and nice from American technology

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs