Asteroid alarms! What will we run out of first: luck or time?

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Published on: January 12, 2013

Jan. 12, 2013

Having survived the end of 2012 with our planet and civilization intact — such as it is and despite supposed predictions by ancient Mayan calendar makers — if you were one of those who were truly worried about the end of everything then you may take great comfort to know that it does not appear our world – or at least a small portion of it – will end on April 13, 2036 either.

This past Wednesday the asteroid Apophis whizzed by Earth at a safe distance of nine million miles. If the strange name seems familiar to you, that’s because you’re either a fan of a villain on Stargate, you’re an expert in Egyptian mythology who knows Apophis is a serpent god, or you recall that this is the asteroid that is predicted to pass within about 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029 – a cosmic near-miss, but a near-miss nonetheless.

Astronomers originally were concerned that as Apophis flew by Earth in 2029 it might pass through a certain point in space that would cause Earth’s gravity to change its orbit in such a way that greatly increased its chances of hitting Earth in 2036 and taking out a city or triggering a very bad tsunami.

Fortunately, several telescopes that were pointed at Apophis this week were able to more carefully define the asteroid’s orbit and all but rule out any chance we have anything to worry about. The odds of Apophis striking our planet in 2036 are now predicted to be less than one in a million.

Still, think about this: the chances someone will get four of six numbers correct on tonight’s Lotto drawing are much less, with the odds at 1 in 1.4 million. Yet last week 1,129 people beat those odds and won almost $90 each.

Now you statistics experts out there may argue the comparison isn’t valid, but what this tells me is that even when the odds are quite remote, they are often beat and stuff happens.

I’m not suggesting that Apophis is going to shatter the odds and wreck our day in 23 years, or that you should run out and play Lotto tonight, but what I am suggesting is that as remote as the chances are of any individual asteroid hitting the Earth, or any individual winning big money playing Lotto, we know it has happened before and you can take it to the bank that it will happen again.

Preventing a future asteroid from doing to humans what a past asteroid did to the dinosaurs has always been for me one of the best and most practical reasons to have a robust space program with all the pieces in place that it would take to find, track, intercept and deflect any big rocks heading our way.

I’ve said it before and sometimes I still believe that the best thing that could happen to our space program is for a five-mile-wide asteroid to be aimed right at downtown Manhattan. Things would change then, and they would change in a big hurry.

And once the threat had passed, we would have people and hardware in place that I have to believe would truly open up the final frontier and turn us into a real spacefaring civilization that would see us at last pioneering the entire solar system.

Of course, there’s already a lot of interest in asteroids within segments of the space community.

Astronomers, both professional and amateur, are always on the lookout for them, and have discovered and catalogued hundreds of the small rocky objects down through the years. And unmanned probes from the United States, Japan and China have each visited a near-Earth object.

On the human spaceflight side of the equation, President Obama has said he wants NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a precursor to sending a crew to Mars during the 2030s, but no formal program with specific plans or hardware or funding has been announced. And it’s tough to say how seriously NASA is taking the idea.

Adding to the confusion: Media reports during the past month or so have indicated on the one hand that nothing is being done by NASA to seriously pursue a manned asteroid mission because there is no interest, and yet on the other hand there apparently is an idea circulating within the halls of our space agency to send a robot spacecraft to lasso a very small asteroid and put it into orbit around the Moon for purposes not fully and clearly defined.

And then there’s the company called Planetary Resources, whose commercial plans include exploring asteroids, mapping their locations, mining the rocks for material such as platinum, and possibly using asteroids to host fuel depots for other visiting spacecraft.

So what should we make of all of this?

Well, the asteroids are out there, and they’re moving around, and so are we, and we better find a way to live together in this solar system before someone gets hurt. Add this goal to the many other uses of space that are competing for our attention and our tax dollars.

By the way, if Apophis coming within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029 has you nervous for some reason, then consider this: next month, on Feb. 15, a 130-foot-wide asteroid called DA14 will pass between us and our communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit, missing us on the surface by a distance of only 17,000 miles.

It was discovered last February, was picked up again by telescopes three days ago, and based on the latest orbit calculations now has a 1 in 556,000 chance of hitting the Earth sometime between 2078 and 2111.

How many more asteroid alarms will it take for us to get our act together in space before we run out of luck, or run out of time.

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