How to protect Earth from asteroid destruction

NASA and others are looking to protect the world from asteroid strikes

asteroids

There has been much discussion about how NASA and others could protect Earth from the threat of asteroids catastrophically striking the planet. This month NASA issued a report on the conclusions reached by a group of experts on the best ways to find, track and possibly deflect asteroids headed for Earth. Here we take a look at some of the key findings as well as other asteroid detection projects.

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Quick look: NASA’s ambitious asteroid grabbing mission

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Credit: REUTERS

NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing close to Earth using both ground and space-based telescopes. The Near Earth Object Observations program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset that are of interest and plots their orbits into the future to determine whether any could be potentially hazardous to our planet. As of Feb. 1, 2014, 10,685 NEOs have been discovered, including about 97% of asteroids larger than .6 miles (one kilometer). But there is a greater need to pinpoint smaller asteroids such as the one that exploded near Chelyabinsk, Russia, NASA said.

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Credit: REUTERS

At their 2013 meeting, United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space endorsed expanded efforts for an International Asteroid Warning Network. IAWN is a global network of telescopes and tracking stations from different parts of the world searching all parts of the sky to provide a more comprehensive picture of how many asteroids exist and where they are. The IAWN provides a way for additional nations to join the effort.

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Related to IAWN, The European Space Commissions Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG – pronounced ‘same page’) was established by Action Team 14, a technical forum with a mandate from the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) to develop a strategy on how to react on a possible asteroid impact threat.

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NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge is still in the planning stages but NASA has said it will be a large-scale project "focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. The challenge will involve a variety of partnerships with other government agencies, international partners, industry, academia, and citizen scientists," NASA said.

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Credit: YouTube.com

NASA is mainly focused on finding asteroids larger than 459 feet (140 meters), and creating new ways to find even smaller NEOs. NASA also is committed to developing new ways to search existing data to find these objects. In September 2013, NASA announced a partnership with Planetary Resources – an asteroid mining company -- to develop crowd-sourced software solutions to enhance detection of NEOs in data already collected by NASA and agency partners.

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NASA said it doubled the money spent in the search for potentially hazardous asteroids through the NEOO program in Fiscal Year 2014, and is committed to developing new ways to use existing data by seeking for innovative ideas from citizen scientists.

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The Asteroid Redirect Mission. The NASA mission concept is to use a robotic spacecraft to capture a small near-Earth asteroid -- 13 to 32 feet (4-10 meters) in size -- or remove a boulder 3 to 16 feet (1 to 5 meters) from the surface of a larger asteroid and redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon. Astronauts launched aboard NASA's new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket would rendezvous with the captured asteroid material in lunar orbit and collect samples for return to Earth, NASA said.

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Credit: Reuters

Schematic diagram showing the locations of near-Earth asteroids in the solar system.

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Credit: Reuters

The WISE space telescope, which NASA re-activated to help find asteroids that could be on a collision course with Earth. Includes chart detailing every recent object passing close to Earth.

asteroids
Credit: YouTube.com

NASA’s  Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth. The mission is expected to be launched in 2016 and arrive near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2019. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft's arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023.

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The ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft isn’t looking for asteroids but rather comets.  Specifically the spacecraft, festooned with 25 instruments between its lander and orbiter (including three from NASA), will monitor comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it makes its nosedive into, and then climb out of, the inner solar system. Over 16 months, during which old 67P is expected to transform from a small, frozen world into a roiling mass of ice and dust, complete with surface eruptions, mini-earthquakes, basketball-sized, fluffy ice particles and spewing jets of carbon dioxide and cyanide.

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Another system that will help spot asteroids and other space debris will be the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Telescope (SST). Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, SST will give scientists in a matter of nights the space surveillance data that current telescopes take weeks or months to provide, the Air Force says. DARPA says the SST is very sensitive to light, which lets it see faint objects in deep space that currently are impossible to observe.