LEFT: Meteor crater in
, nearly 4,000 feet across and 570 ft. deep, formed by the equivalent of a 10 megaton blast. Right: NASA Director Charles Boldin – suggests we “pray” if asteroid approaches! Arizona
NASA Director Charles F. Boldin admitted he’s a practicing Episcopalian to Capitol Hill Lawmakers yesterday, grilling him on what if anything could be done if it was learned an asteroid strike threatened New York City in 3 weeks. No surprise that lawmakers, all mostly religious folk, nodded heads in reluctant assent when his answer was “Pray.” Boldin subsequently admitted that while something MIGHT have been done (earlier!), the “funds never came”. So here we are, putatively the smartest species in the history of the world, but possibly facing an end as final as the ‘dumb’ dinos with brains the size of walnuts.
After two million years of evolution and this is the best answer humans can come up with? Well, Boldin and the congressional cohort may pray all they want but that won’t halt or deflect a planet killer asteroid if one is somewhere out there taking aim at planet Earth. As for New York City, Boldin essentially admitted that even a Tunguska type event (such as struck Siberia in 1908) wouldn’t be stoppable.
The object felled some 80 million trees and decimated nearly 820 square miles, about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. And this was from an object perhaps ten times the size of the 11 -ton meteoroid that hit the Urals the morning of Feb. 15th . The nuclear equivalent was nearly 1 megaton. If such an object were to target New York City it would make the 9/11 attacks look like a minor blink. Essentially, the entire metropolis would be left a burning husk without a building left standing and 12 million or more dead.
And all the praying in the world, despite Boldin’s recommendations, will not stop it! It is what we call "magical thinking".
The irony of the situation is that while we squander trillions on an unwinnable “war against terror” we remain deaf, dumb and blind to a real terror that could strike at any time from the skies. But many of us could see this coming.
Project Space Watch, based at the University of Arizona, featured generous grant allocations in its early years when it discovered over 1,300 Earth -approaching asteroids by 2002. As the austerity -mindedness infected all science research areas, that capability has since wound down, leaving Spacewatch mostly in the hands of amateurs. Not that the latter aren't observationally capable, but we also need professionals to spot these things and then (using the well known equations of celestial mechanics, e.g. http://www.brane-space.blogspot.com/2010/07/another-special-function-legendre.html) to obtain the orbital parameters as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, Project Spaceguard sought to extend the detection to focus more on NEOs (near Earth objects) as opposed to singling out near Earth asteroids (NEAs). Again budget limitations loomed and imposed truncated observation time frames and selectivity. Although there have been many discoveries of near-Earth asteroids the Spaceguard Project has often been criticized for not having an in-depth master plan if our humble planet is directly in the crosshairs of a giant asteroid. It has also been criticized for setting off false alarms that could lead to dangerous implications. However, those downsides don’t equal the upsides of having an effective alert and response system!
NASA published article in April of 2001 to clarify many questions that have come up with this project. The report distinguished the difference between NEOs and NEAs, why the organization selected NEAs with a diameter of at least one kilometer in diameter, why the number of 90 percent was chosen and many other questions that have perplexed the general public.
We have the brains, supposedly, and given we aren't planning to abandon 'Mother' Earth any time soon, we had better damned well come up with a credible plan (NOT Prayer!) to deal with an approaching asteroid, of whatever size.