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Destruction from Space

Entry 479, on 2007-02-21 at 14:01:36 (Rating 2, Science)

What could be more important than saving the Earth from major destruction through a collision from space? Isn't it worth investing some money into the research and engineering necessary to detect and prevent collisions with asteroids? After all, it seems to be OK for the world to spend billions on a war in Iraq, which is of doubtful benefit to anyone (apart from the military industries of America and the UK). Why not forget about that and spend the money on preventing asteroid collisions, or why not use it to research fusion energy, or maybe to create new crops to alleviate world hunger? There really is something fundamentally wrong with the way this world works, isn't there.

The reason I mention this subject is a news story regarding a possible collision with asteroid Apophis, which has a 1 in 45,000 chance of a direct hit with the Earth when it passes this way on on 13 April, 2036. That isn't a very high chance, but the consequences of the event happening would be extreme. Also, there are many asteroids which pass near the Earth so its only a matter of time before a collision does happen. It has happened many times before, after all, the most famous occasion being the collision which contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs and other forms of life at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.

Its impossible to calculate an exact orbit for an object in the Solar System. Any orbit which involves more than 2 objects can only be approximated. This, and the fact that the orbital elements of an object are only approximate, leads to the probability estimate of a collision instead of a precise prediction.

So what is the problem? We found this object many years before the possible collision, didn't we. Doesn't that mean we have plenty of time to change the object's orbit before it collides? Well yes, in this case there is plenty of time, but that isn't always the case. Recently, other near Earth asteroids have only been discovered as they approached the Earth. With the current technology we would need many years to prepare a launch and deflect a large object about to collide with us.

There isn't enough being invested in this area of science at the moment (in fact there isn't enough being invested in any area of science). Humans spend trillions on trivial, useless nonsense (movies, advertising, war, etc) but skimp on investment in areas which could make a big difference to our planet. The Earth is a bit like the Titanic: as it sinks the band keeps playing.

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