The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes: Asteroid Hunters

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A few weeks ago, this asteroid came really close to hitting Earth.On March 3rd, 2009 at 1:40PM GMT, just a mere month after we'd finished the Asteroid Hunters segment, an asteroid of up to 165 feet in diameter snuck up on us, coming within approximately 37,000 miles from a direct impact with Earth. That's almost seven times closer than the distance to the Moon and about twice the distance of some communications satellites that orbit the earth.

Called “2009 DD45”, the asteroid was estimated to be around the same size as the one that exploded in the atmosphere near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in remote Siberia on June 30th, 1908, flattening 80 million trees across eight hundred square miles of remote forest. Of course, if an asteroid of this size were to hit a city or in an ocean offshore from a populated area, tens of thousands of people would likely die.

Then, just as the last of the night sky observers were completing their collective sighs of relief, on March 17th, 2009 another Tunguska-class asteroid, 2009 FH, passed by about 53,000 miles from Earth. Thankfully, neither of these asteroids actually hit us. But astronomers didn’t even observe 2009 DD45 until 4 days before its closest approach. It's orbit was calculated and it was determined that it would miss the Earth. But it's likely that asteroids of this size are fairly frequently buzzing by the Earth. And until recently, most of them have been undetected.

In 1998, NASA started the Spaceguard Survey which set out to discover 90% of those Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) 1 km in diameter and larger. An impact by an asteroid this size would likely cause global destruction and an end to much of life as we know it so it’s definitely reassuring that 10 years after its inception, the Spaceguard Survey had found about 80% (CK) of them. But unfortunately, once we’ve found them, there’s still no international concensus or infrastructure in place in how to deflect or destroy them. But the Survey is limited by its mandate to find those mass extinction-sized asteroids as well as by the size and sophistication of the telescopes that are dedicated to searching the skies.

As former Apollo 9 astronaut, Rusty Schweickart said in a recent phone conversation, "in the process of finding the big ones, you also find a bunch of small ones, and the smaller ones are obviously far more numerous than the large ones." But it will take many more resources and new telescopes to continue searching for and tracking the smaller ones. And unfortunately, once we’ve found them, there's still no international consensus or infrastructure in place in how to deflect or destroy them. Raising awareness and building alliances amongst governments and space agencies is Schweikart's current "mission". He founded the B612 Foundation and Association of Space Explorers to tackle these goals on different fronts.

The message that I hope is conveyed with the Asteroid Hunters TV segment is that we are not immune from asteroid impacts here on Earth. Rusty Schweikart puts it best in a portion of his interview that didn’t make it into the final program:

"Well, asteroids and comets are good news and bad news, you know? But for them we wouldn’t be here, and on the other hand, if we don't actually take some action now, at some point we won’t be here anymore, because there's no question that we will be hit by asteroids, and we’ll probably be hit by, we would be hit by comets as well. Unless, we use the technology that we have and the brains that we have in order to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts, and we can do that. We can basically now, with current technology, assure that no asteroid ever hits the Earth again. That can do any serious damage."
-Rusty Schweikart

Here's a little exercise from Rusty that you can do to get a sense of what we know today about exactly what's out there:

Rusty concludes that, "…what we really care about is not only the things that large, we care about things that can hurt us. Things that can hurt us go down to 40 to 45 meters or so. Instead of there being 940 of them, there are more like 600,000 of them. So the new charge for NASA, which they have so far ignored, is to find 90% of the objects 140 meters and larger by 2020. You can't reasonably set a goal to find everything down to 40 meters because it's just beyond the capability of telescopes and the money available. So NASA, working with Congress, set the goal at 140 meters. Now nevertheless, when you are looking for 140 meter objects, it’s going to take bigger telescopes than the ones to find a kilometer. Therefore we are going to find many many smaller objects as well. So 10 to 15 years from now, instead of that number on the far right hand column being 6000, it will be 1 million."


Watch the Asteroid Hunters television story online.


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Category: Astronomy, Engineering

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Amy Miller

About the Author ()

Amy Miller is the Supervising Producer and Partner at Spine Films, a boutique independent production company specializing in hard science factual television. Prior to joining the Spine team, Amy worked for six years at KQED (PBS) in San Francisco as the Series Producer of QUEST, a multimedia science and environment series. It was at KQED that she was finally able to merge her lifelong passions for science and storytelling. Originally from Iowa, Amy grew up in Colorado then landed in San Francisco in 1991. She studied biology and film production at University of Colorado and San Francisco State University, and since graduating in 1995, she has worked as a camera assistant, documentary filmmaker, TV producer and correspondent on a variety of cable and public television shows including two other KQED series, "Spark" and "Independent View". For her work in television, she has earned ten regional Emmy awards, two AAAS Kavli Science Journalism awards, and a Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism Feature Writing award.