Sun, 08 Apr 2007 15:12 CDT
To David Morrison, a senior scientist at NASA, the Earth orbits the sun in a sort of cosmic shooting gallery. More than 1 million asteroids spin around the sun, and it is Morrison's job to figure out which of these bodies of rock, dust and metal could come crashing down on Earth.
Right now, NASA is tracking 127 asteroids that have a very small chance of striking the planet. That number is about to get a lot higher. Stronger telescopes, and a new mandate from Congress, will allow scientists to detect thousands of smaller asteroids more likely to hit Earth. And scientists are plotting ways to stop them, from "gravity tractors" to solar ray guns.
"There is no question that these will hit the Earth," says Russell Schweickart, a former Apollo astronaut who is involved in a group studying asteroids. "The question is how often we will have to do something about it." In fact, Schweickart thinks world leaders might have to do something about it very soon, within the next 15 years.
In early March, Russian, European, Japanese and American scientists held a Planetary Defense Conference in Washington to discuss the threats and plot a strategy for dealing with them.
Identifying asteroids close to the Earth is the priority right now, says Dave Jonta, a conference spokesman. A large asteroid could cause what scientists call an "impact winter": a huge volume of dust gets thrown into the atmosphere, completely or partially blocking the sun's light, causing crop loss, disease and possible global starvation. And smaller asteroids could kill hundred of thousands, if not millions of people, Schweickart says.
A group of experts, scientists, diplomats and international lawyers will meet in May to confront issues such as what country will finance asteroid-destruction missions.
One problem: Because of the difficulty in projecting an asteroid's orbit, scientists often can only predict the probability that a specific asteroid will hit the Earth. So international leaders might have to take action before knowing for certain what path an asteroid might take. "We may have to spend $300 million to fly a mission that, in the end, wasn't needed," Schweickart says, "but that's a lot better than living with a 10 percent chance that New York City will be hit."