A NASA scientist expressed a grim assessment of humanity’s ability to defend itself against an oncoming asteroid or comet crash, at a presentation on Monday. And he advocates building a defense system comprised on a rocket capable of intercepting one those sort of threatening space rocks in order to mitigate or possibly eliminate the ability for an asteroid or comet to wipe out our species.
During a presentation at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting,Joseph Nuth, a researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center spoke about the grave dangers large asteroids and comets pose to life on Earth. While acknowledging the chances of a collision with a rock big enough to pose an existential threat are quite small, he opined that an extinction-level event was not unthinkable, especially given the history of the planet.
“Things like dinosaur killers, they’re 50 to 60 million years apart, essentially,” he told AGU attendees. “You could say, of course, we’re due.” The agency has found what it estimates to be 90 percent or more of near-Earth objects larger than a kilometer — big enough to cause significant devastation to life on Earth.
While most scientists are paying attention to a surprise asteroid that’d headed for Earth (hi there, Queen guitarist Brian May!) Nuth emphasizes we should also spend our energy and attention on looking at comets, which usually orbit the sun with on a set path but sometimes flyby Earth in an aberrant manner. Nuth cites two instances in 1996 and 2014 when comets nearly crashed into Jupiter and Mars, respectively.
“The biggest problem, basically, is there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment,” he said.
NASA recently opened up a planetary defense office, and while its investing a lot of money and time into augmenting our ability to spot oncoming rocks that could pose a threat, we still have no way to actually stop a large asteroid or comet from hurtling right into the planet.
It sounds like a science fiction movie, but Nuth seriously recommends we build a interceptor rocket fitted with a nuclear bomb that could potentially stop an asteroid or comet, or at least reduce the damage it could induce. He also suggests we build an observer spacecraft that could be launched to conduct more in-depth study of a nearby that’s raising alarms. If the observer finds the treat credible, we can just fire off the interceptor in time to create a deflection.
Nuth stressed that this is just his suggestion, and that NASA certainly has no official opinion or thoughts on such a plan. “We’re talking a considerable amount of money,” he said. “The NASA request would probably be for several hundred million dollars to produce one of these spacecraft.”
That might be money well spent. We won’t always have Bruce Willis around to save our asses.