April 20, 2010

Saving the world from asteroids

Even though the United States is apparently shelving the Space Shuttle program (and we're not going to rely on private contractors for space travel-ugh), President Obama has now presented a much more realistic and handy goal for astronauts - deflecting asteroids.

I'm all for landing on Mars and think that we should continue to explore and expand, however, how can you not work on your asteroid deflecting skills? That's slightly more important because if a sizable one hits this planet... well ask the dinosaurs.

NASA is developing plans to send astronauts to an asteroid to see if they can push it off course. John Grunsfeld is an astrophysicist and a former NASA astronaut who flew on five shuttle missions. As he told Space.com, “by going to a near-Earth object, an asteroid, and perhaps even modifying its trajectory slightly, we would demonstrate a hallmark in human history … [It would be] the first time humans showed that we can make better decisions than the dinosaurs made 65 million years ago." He explained that if scientists don’t work on a solution to get out of the path of an asteroid, life as we know it will certainly be ended by one.

According to Space.com, scientists estimate there are about 100,000 asteroids and comets near Earth and that 1,000 of them could be potentially dangerous. About a dozen of these asteroids could be reached by astronauts, but the target would have to be at least 300 feet wide to make it worth the trip. Even so, spacecrafts have landed on asteroids before. Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft just traveled to the asteroid called Itokawa, where it attempted to collected samples for scientists.

Obama’s asteroid mission is the first step in the ultimate goal of landing on Mars. This mission would not be without complications. First, the flight to a space rock would likely take months. Then astronauts would have to be tethered to the asteroid to keep from floating away, as gravity forces would not be in effect. In addition, the space flyers would be outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere and would be exposed to harsh radiation. 

I'm just wondering if we have to use nuclear weapons like every single asteroid movie made by man. Or can we do something like gently nudge the asteroid off course with some thrusters? Either way, Bruce Willis will not be involved.

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