Asteroid Day marks a catastrophic cosmic blast that flattened Siberian forests on June 30, 1908 — but the theme for this year’s observance is hope rather than dread.
“It’s a really exciting time for planetary defense,” former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, executive director of the B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute, told reporters today during the buildup to Sunday’s anniversary. And the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute has a starring role.
DIRAC stands for “Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology,” which sums up the UW institute’s mission to make sense out of the streams of data that are expected to come from current and future asteroid-monitoring efforts.
It just takes one big asteroid or comet to make for a bad day. The dinosaurs found that out 66 million years ago when a miles-wide space rock hit Earth, sparking a mass extinction. A roughly 200-foot-wide comet or asteroid was behind the 1908 blast, now known as the Tunguska event. More recently, the breakup of a 60-foot-wide asteroid over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk put the world on edge in 2013.
Americans rate asteroid and comet monitoring as the top priority for the U.S. space program, higher than exploration of the moon or Mars, according to survey results released last week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
We’re likely to be hearing even more about asteroids in the next few years, thanks to projects such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile. The LSST, which is due to begin science operations in the early 2020s, is expected to discover more than 100,000 near-Earth objects — including some that might look as if they have a chance of hitting Earth someday.
Scientists at the DIRAC Institute, including two researchers affiliated with the Asteroid Institute, are already hard at work developing the data analysis system that will be used to determine the orbits of the near-Earth objects discovered by the LSST. “That is a very large computational problem,” Lu said.
Orbit determination on a massive scale will be crucial once the LSST swings into action. “It’s not enough to just say, ‘I’ve discovered or seen it.’ That doesn’t do any good,” Lu said. “You need to know where that asteroid is going.”
You also need to know what asteroids are made of, and how to deflect the ones that could pose a threat. That’s where several space missions enter the picture. Over the past year, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft have begun close-up studies of near-Earth asteroids, in preparation for bringing samples back.
In 2021, NASA plans to launch another spacecraft called DART (which stands for “Double Asteroid Redirection Test”) to the Didymos binary-asteroid system. DART will crash itself into the system’s smaller asteroid (known as Didymos B or “Didymoon”), and scientists will observe how that impact affects its orbit around the larger asteroid, Didymos A.
“This is really the first intentional deflection of an asteroid … where you measure precisely, exactly what you’ve done,” said Mark Boslough, a physicist who serves as the chair of the Asteroid Day Expert Panel.
The findings from DART could help researchers fine-tune scenarios for diverting a potentially hazardous asteroid safely when the need arises. A mission being considered by the European Space Agency, known as Hera, would follow up on DART by sending a spacecraft to make an up-close inspection of the impact site.
Astronomers may be able to get a better handle on the near-Earth asteroid environment over the next couple of weeks, during the Beta Taurid meteor shower. The Beta Taurids are an annual event, but this year’s pass-through is expected to be more active than average. Some have even suggested that 1908’s Tunguska event was caused by a Beta Taurid meteor.
Asteroids aren’t all bad, of course: In future decades, they could provide water ice, building materials and potentially precious metals to support space operations. Ventures such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have pivoted away from asteroid mining over the past year. Nevertheless, some investors still see space resources as a significant long-term opportunity, particularly if NASA’s lunar settlement initiative picks up steam.
The tiny European nation of Luxembourg has taken the lead in setting strategies for asteroid resource utilization. “Using the resources that we can find in space will completely revolutionize the way we act in space,” said Marc Serres, CEO of the Luxembourg Space Agency.
Luxembourg is the hub for this year’s Asteroid Day activities. Six hours’ worth of live video coverage will emanate from Luxembourg, starting at 3 a.m. PT Friday, with repeat airings planned over the weekend. Lynne Jones and Mario Juric, two of the scientists on the teams for the Large Synoptic Space Telescope and UW’s DIRAC Institute, will be among the panelists.
Fresh programming from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and other partners will be added through Monday. Check out what’s playing now:
Seattle’s Museum of Flight will be featuring the Asteroid Day video feed and making educational materials available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. PT Sunday at the Alaska Airlines Aerospace Education Center.