space research, astronomer funding, asteroid damage

Surprise Asteroid Underlines Need for Early Detection System

December 29, 2008 10:31 AM
by Jen O'Neill
Astronomers are asking for additional funding to monitor asteroid activity with the hopes of detecting potentially devastating asteroids before it’s too late.

Astronomers Call for Asteroid Warning Systems

In October, a small asteroid collided with the Earth’s atmosphere over Africa, surprising astronomers who never saw it coming. Although it caused no damage, had the piece of space debris been larger, it could have been “catastrophic for the planet,” wrote Australian paper Herald Sun.

Space scientists believe the celestial commotion indicates that there is a need for funding geared toward surveying the skies to predict asteroid patterns, and to learn if any are headed toward the Earth. 

The asteroid measured two meters across, and was between one and five meters wide—about the “size of a bus,” claims Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, confirming “something that small would not survive passage through the atmosphere intact.” Williams warned that had the asteroid been larger, however—such as 30 meters across—an entire city could have been taken out. An asteroid as large 300 meters across “could have ended all life on planet Earth.”

According to astronomers, a 300-meter-wide asteroid, named Apophis, has a slim chance of hitting the Earth in 2036. The odds of a collision are 1/6250 according to astronomers, and although that’s only a minor chance, they believe “the stakes are too high to ignore.”

Opinion & Analysis: More funding needed for asteroid detection

Dr. Colin Keay, an associate professor of physics at the University of Newcastle who has studied asteroid activity for over 30 years, told ABC News that only about 10 percent of small and medium-sized asteroids have been mapped by scientists since the “hunt for unidentified near earth objects has begun.” He adds that the operation is small since there’s a lack of government funding. Keay asserts that while we were “lucky” the asteroid did not cause damage, mapping asteroids is extremely important, since “[o]n the small screen of a weapons early warning system, the flaring tail of an asteroid looks remarkably like an incoming ballistic weapon.”

Related Topic: The case for early warning systems

In 1998, The Herald Sun reports, lawmakers directed NASA to identify “at least 90 per cent of the asteroids more than 1 km wide that orbit the sun and periodically cross Earth’s path” by 2008. Yet the search remains only three-quarters complete, and Congress stepped in last year to encourage the space agency “to come up with options for deflecting potential threats.”

A straight hit from an asteroid “could unleash more destruction than Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake combined,” Gareth Williams explains. Therefore, space scientists suggest that an early warning system should be implemented utilizing tools similar to those of early earthquake detection systems. According to a July findingDulcinea article, an early detections system could provide up to 10 hours of warning so people can evacuate.

Reference: What is an asteroid?

Most people have seen meteor showers light up the night sky, or have at least heard about Halley’s Comet—which appears once every 75 years. Asteroids are less understood. According to the Hubble Site Reference Desk, asteroids are usually larger masses of rock that, when found in our solar system, often emerge from the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter.

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Astronomy has resources for finding the best sites to learn the basics, keep up-to-date on news and research, and much more.

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