News / Science & Technology

Scientists Advance Asteroid Detection, Deflection, Detonation Research

A simulation of asteroid 2012 DA14 approaching from the south as it passes through the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15, 2013. (/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
A simulation of asteroid 2012 DA14 approaching from the south as it passes through the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15, 2013. (/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Suzanne Presto
Amateur and professional skywatchers all over the world send observations to the Minor Planet Center, which collects information about near-Earth objects. The clearinghouse is just one way people are working to protect us from asteroid strikes. Scientists also are developing innovative ways to detect, deflect and possibly destroy dangerous asteroids in Earth's neighborhood.

Asteroid Alert

It sounds like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster. But it's real, and, it's getting $5 million from the U.S. space agency.   

The Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System - ATLAS for short - is being developed with NASA support by a team of astronomers at the University of Hawaii. As the name implies, their goal is to find asteroids that are just about to make their final plunge and strike our planet.

ATLAS is envisioned as a network of as many as eight ground-based telescopes, armed with cameras, that would scan the visible sky twice each night. The aim is for ATLAS to provide at least a day's warning for an asteroid that could wipe out a town, a week for one that could devastate a city, or three weeks' notice for one that could wipe out a larger area.  

"We really aren't going to be able to deflect these asteroids as they're coming in on their last plunge. There's just no chance of that," said astronomer John Tonry, who leads the ATLAS project. "The thing that we can do is provide warning, and the thing that is remarkable about the warning we can provide for asteroid impact is that it's not like hurricanes or tsunamis or earthquakes. It's really accurate. We can say exactly where and when this thing is going to come down."    

Detection

ATLAS is designed for a shallow and wide search of the sky, which Tonry says would complement other projects that are searching deep into narrow slivers of sky to find objects still decades away.    

The system would be sensitive enough to spot a match flame from across the United States. Tonry says there would be a better-than-50/50 chance of providing a day's warning for an object like the meteor that exploded over Russia in February, if copies of ATLAS were spread around the world.   

"What we really want to do is get diversity around the planet," he said. "Hawaii can't see the southern sky, and if we really want to cover the whole sky, we need to get units in the southern hemisphere, like Australia or Chile or South Africa."   

Space-Based Sentinel

Other scientists focus on space-based assets that aren't hindered by Earth's weather conditions, atmosphere or bright skies.

A former NASA astronaut, Ed Lu, heads a non-profit organization called the B612 Foundation. Earlier this year, he told lawmakers about efforts to privately raise $450 million to build and operate an infrared space telescope called Sentinel.  Lu says the goal is planetary defense.

"As Sentinel moves around the Sun, faster than the Earth does, it will scan Earth's orbit, so it's going to find about 100-times more asteroids than all other telescopes combined," he said.     

Deflection and Detonation

Detecting dangerous asteroids is one step. Aerospace researchers such as Brent Barbee, a flight dynamics engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, focus on asteroid deflection.    

"If we know that the asteroid is coming, say, 20 years in advance, then that opens up a wide range of possibilities," he explained.  "In those cases we could conceivably knock the asteroid off course with a kinetic impactor spacecraft or we could gradually nudge it off course with a gravity tractor spacecraft, things like that."  

Such spacecraft would, theoretically, divert an asteroid.  

Barbee considers an even more dramatic scenario. He looks at very short warning-times, less than 10 years' notice of a major impact, and he researches the idea of quickly deploying a nuclear-armed, two-body vehicle to an incoming asteroid.  

"One part of the vehicle is a kinetic impactor that excavates a shallow crater on the surface of the asteroid, and the follower vehicle contains a nuclear explosive device that follows the lead impactor vehicle into that shallow crater and detonates the explosive device," he said.

The nuclear bomb would shatter the asteroid, and Barbee said simulations indicate that only a fraction of a percent of the original mass of the asteroid might hit the atmosphere.    

While pieces of the necessary technology do exist, Barbee says the guidance-navigation technologies needed to precisely strike the speeding asteroid are still under development.    

Advice

So, if there is a large, dangerous asteroid that is about to crash into our planet, you might want to consider NASA chief Charles Bolden's advice.  He told lawmakers earlier this year, "the answer to you is, if it's coming in three weeks, pray."

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race in military confinement to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid