[meteorite-list] Astronauts Point To Next Frontier: Stopping Killer Asteroids
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu, 24 Oct 2013 15:31:06 -0700 (PDT)
Astronauts point to next frontier: Stopping killer asteroids
October 24, 2013
For most people, going into outer space would be enough of a claim to
fame - but the way astronaut Rusty Schweickart sees it, saving the world
from killer asteroids is far more significant.
"Apollo and Skylab were great experiences for me personally, but my NEO
[near-Earth object] work may really save many, many lives ... ultimately,"
the 77-year-old Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1969 and served as
backup Skylab commander, said during a NEOShield Tweetup this month.
Schweickart and four other astronauts will urge the international community
to put two missions high up on the agenda for space spending: a deep-space
infrared telescope to detect near-Earth asteroids, and an asteroid-deflecting
probe that could set the stage for a planetary defense system.
The Sentinel Space Telescope, a project backed by the nonprofit B612 Foundation,
may be the best candidate for the deep-space spotter. The foundation says
the Sentinel could be launched five years after the go-ahead is given
- but that depends on raising enough money to cover the estimated $400
million price tag.
Meanwhile, the other mission would shoot a high-tech cannonball at an
asteroid to find out what it would take to divert a threatening space
rock. NASA's Deep Impact mission tried something like this on a small
scale in 2005, and an international consortium is proposing a larger-scale
smash-up for a mission called Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment,
or AIDA. The two-part AIDA probe could be sent to the asteroid Didymos
and its companion in 2022, at an estimated cost of $344 million.
An alternative approach would be to put up a "gravity tractor" - a spacecraft
that would use gravitational pull to change the course of a potentially
The astronauts' call to action will come Friday during a panel discussion
at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Joining Schweickart
on stage will be former NASA astronauts Tom Jones and Ed Lu, plus Japan's
Soichi Noguchi and Romania's Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu.
Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson will moderate the 11 a.m.
ET event, which will be webcast via Ustream.
Their timing couldn't be better: This week, the U.N. General Assembly
is considering an international plan to deal with potential asteroid threats,
and last week, a worldwide hubbub erupted over a potentially threatening
space rock known as 2013 TV135.
That particular asteroid is "nothing to lose sleep over," said Jones,
who chairs the Association of Space Explorers' Committee on Near-Earth
Objects. Earth's risk of collision with 2013 TV135 in the year 2032 is
almost certain to shrink to zero as more observations come in. But someday,
humanity will have to figure out how to deflect a killer asteroid - or
go the way of the dinosaurs.
Schweickart told NBC News that February's spectacular meteor blast over
Russia has heightened awareness about the asteroid threat. But he thinks
the world might need an even louder wakeup call. "My guess is that we'll
probably get hit once or twice before there's enough of an incentive for
people to say we've got to do something ... and take a risk to eliminate
this threat for everybody," he said.
The U.N. has a plan
That's where the U.N. plan comes in: Experts have proposed setting up
an International Asteroid Warning Network, plus a network for coordinating
asteroid-related missions by the world's space agencies. The U.N. Committee
on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space would help sort out the political
and diplomatic issues associated with actually trying to divert an asteroid,
a la Bruce Willis in "Armageddon."
"It is, in some ways, not much ... in that what we now have is a 'skeleton'
for international decision making on the impact threat," Schweickart said
in an email. "But it is now the whole world (via the General Assembly)
that has agreed to this! The next step will be to begin putting the nerves
and muscle onto that skeleton. Hopefully, in the end, we'll be ready when
a serious impact threat emerges."
Will that be a bigger story than the Apollo moonshots or the International
Space Station? It'd rank right up there, said Ed Lu, a former space station
astronaut and Google executive who is now CEO of the B612 Foundation.
"My work on preventing asteroid impacts clearly has the potential to be
the most important work I've ever done (either as a scientist, as a NASA
astronaut, or at Google)," Lu told NBC News in an email. "A friend and
former colleague from Google told me that I am likely the only Googler
who left because Google wasn't doing something big enough! When it comes
to building and flying the B612 Sentinel Mission, I think the question
becomes, how can we not do this?"
Jones, a veteran space shuttle astronaut, said the stakes are at least
as high as they were for the Apollo era.
"Apollo was very important for the Cold War," he told NBC News. "But in
the 21st century, I think using robotic technology and human spaceflight
as tools to address this will be paramount for our survival as a species."
Received on Thu 24 Oct 2013 06:31:06 PM PDT