It’s Asteroid Day! Scientists look on the bright side of our cosmic shooting gallery

This chart shows the distribution of known asteroids as of 2011, projected onto the solar system’s ecliptic plane. White circles represent the orbits of Earth, Mars and Jupiter. Scientists say there may be more than a million asteroids measuring 130 feet or wider. (JAXA / AKARI Graphic)

Asteroid experts say they’re looking forward to an explosion – but not the kind of extinction-level blast that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Instead, they’re anticipating an explosion of knowledge about near-Earth objects, and how to head them off in case they threaten our planet.

The perils and opportunities posed by the asteroids in our cosmic neighborhood is the focus of Asteroid Day, a global campaign that marks the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska explosion on June 30.

The big observance is a 24-hour streaming-video marathon that kicked off at 6 p.m. PT today. The main event is in Luxembourg, which styles itself as a hub for the nascent asteroid mining industry. As Thursday morphs into Friday, organizers will hand off the show to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, to the European Space Agency, and to NASA.

More than 700 other Asteroid Day events have been scheduled around the world, including Asteroid Awareness Day activities at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

The consciousness-raising exercise was created in 2014 by activists who were concerned about the risks posed by near-Earth objects. Among the campaign’s standard-bearers are world-famous British physicist Stephen Hawking and Queen guitarist Brian May, who’s also an astrophysicist. Both luminaries are participating in this year’s webcast.

Physicist Mark Boslough, who recently retired from Sandia National Laboratories, is participating as well. He chairs the Asteroid Day Expert Panel and will take part in the webcast from Luxembourg.

During a teleconference with reporters, Boslough noted that the discovery rate for near-Earth asteroids is expected to skyrocket over the next decade as next-generation observatories such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope turn their eyes to the skies.

The findings could spawn a whole new field of research based on big data, he said.

“As we build up this database of millions of asteroids … if we get that many asteroids, we have lots and lots of data,” Boslough said. “When we start getting that much data on different systems, like the human genome, we can do a whole different type of informatics. We can start learning about families. We can start putting in different classifications, and really enhance the science.”

Just as unraveling the genome has led to genomics, and just as learning more about the roles of proteins led to proteomics, scientists could create a new discipline focused on the statistical study of near-Earth objects, also known as NEOs.

“Perhaps we could start a new branch of science called ‘neomics,’” Boslough said, only half-jokingly.

Such a field of study wouldn’t be merely academic. To be sure, a close study of asteroids could tell planetary scientists a lot about the formation of the solar system. But it would also tell mission planners how best to divert asteroids that are headed on a collision course.

Awareness about the potential threat has risen since 2013, when an asteroid blasted apart in the skies over Chelyabinsk in Siberia. The explosion and resulting shock wave injured more than 1,000 people.

Scientists estimate that a Chelyabinsk-scale blast happens every few decades. A Tunguska-scale explosion, which knocked down more than a million acres of trees, is thought to occur every few centuries, and could take out a city in a worst-case scenario.

Astronomers say they have identified 90 percent of the really big asteroids – kilometer-wide rocks capable of dooming the dinosaurs, or our civilization. But there are thought to be a million Tunguska-type asteroids, and hardly any of them have been detected.

Being able to track smaller asteroids should be the top priority, but learning how to deflect them is important as well, said former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, executive director of the B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute.

Lu and B612 have led the way in asteroid activism for more than a decade, and Lu credits Chelyabinsk for making his job easier.

“It’s apparent that the idea of preventing asteroid impacts now has become somewhat mainstream,” he said, “and I think a lot of it had to do with the Chelyabinsk asteroid impact in 2013. … The understanding and the analysis and the way we are looking at deflection missions now have progressed greatly.”

Lu himself has contributed to the deflection debate, by proposing the use of in-space “gravity tractors” that can pull potentially threatening asteroids into harmless courses. Today, NASA and ESA are discussing a pair of missions, DART and AIM, that would test the use of kinetic impactors to knock space rocks out of harm’s way.

On a different front, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu, and Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission to asteroid Ryugu, should add mightily to scientists’ understanding of asteroid composition. Both missions are due to reach their targets next year and bring samples back to Earth.

Commercial space missions are also expected to start targeting asteroids for their resources, starting sometime in the next few years. Planetary Resources, a venture based in Redmond, Wash., plans to test a prototype telescope for observing asteroids in Earth orbit later this year.

Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said in an statement emailed to GeekWire that he and his team are “very supportive of all efforts that bring further knowledge of asteroids and planetary science in general.”

“In fact, the foundational work carried by planetary defense scientists on identifying and locating asteroids has been useful to Planetary Resources, as it supports our identification of targets for future resource extraction,” Lewicki said. “We hope that, as the space resources sector continues to advance, in turn, can support the important work of the planetary defense community.”

Patrick Michel, a senior researcher at the French space agency CNRS, said he welcomed the involvement of asteroid miners.

“Whatever they do, as long as they send images of asteroids, we’ll learn a lot, because we still have a poor knowledge of the detailed properties of these asteroids,” he told GeekWire. “For very small sizes, say, 140 meters, we don’t have any image yet of this kind of asteroid.”

Even nanosatellites can make a huge contribution to the field that Boslough called neomics, particularly if they touch down and interact with asteroids.

“I think we need these kinds of tests before being really able to use these resources and make a business out of it,” Michel said.

GeekWire

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