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Foam troubles, a near-miss and ‘The New Crack’ July 3, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Asteroids, Space.
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The astronomical community is abuzz with manned space flight. A twice scrubbed shuttle mission is set to lift off tomorrow, in a first ever Independence Day launch, despite concerns over a recently formed and discovered crack in the foam insulation. (BugMeNot). In fact they aren’t going to let the problem delay the launch.

A near miss

Aside from exploding spaceships Near Earth Asteroids dominated today’s space related news. Asteroid 2004 XP14 made a relatively close approach to Earth earlier in the day on Monday. Harmless but in astronomical terms a near miss. At about the distance from Earth to the moon the asteroid, about half a kilometer wide, whizzed past Earth.

Scientists maintain that an asteroid of this size impacts our planet about once every 84,000 years.

In the past, these asteroids would have gone by, undetected, but in recent years efforts have been stepped up to discover and catalog all Near Earth Asteroids and Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.

Prior to 1980 fewer than one hundred NEAs were known. By 1990, the number had surpassed 100 but still, relatively few NEAs were discovered.

By the beginning of 2006, over 3,500 NEAs had been cataloged with more than 500 of those classified as “large.” (NASA graph here). 838 of the 3,500 Near Earth Asteroids have been discovered since 1995 by various asteroid hunting missions including: LINEAR, NEAT, Spacewatch, LONEOS and the Catalina Sky Survey.

All of this cataloging serves one purpose. To warn humankind of any impending impacts. Of course, it has a secondary effect as well, an unintended one at that. Knowing of these harmless close passes always brings out the doomsday weirdos, such as Eric Julien, whose late May comet collision nonsense was classic antiscience.

The doomsday media

Often a misinformed media passes along misinformation, such as in this Ananova story from June 22 about asteroid 2006 HZ51. That particular asteroid was removed from the Impact Hazard list at NASAs NEO site on May 3. Basically the original story at New Scientist was based on the fact that this 800 m wide asteroid had a slim chance of hitting the Earth. They always have a slim chance of hitting Earth. NEOs are discovered all the time and rarely if ever merit major news coverage. But they get it. Big asteroids equal big headlines, more advertisers, et cetera, et cetera, and, in turn, more crazy weridos telling us the sky is falling.

The news media today, especially concerning science, is like some weird game of telephone, each source down the line getting the original misinformation even more discombobulated. The near miss of 2004 XP14 made that stand out in my mind as a number of vistors to this blog via search engines arrived with search terms concerning some sort of 2006 asteroid impact.

I think some people actually pine for the world to end in a catastrophic rendevous with a space rock. (Ahem! Eric Julien).

While I don’t disagree that it is good for the public to be given information about potentially hazardous asteroids, it would be nice if it was the right information instead of Chicken Little incessantly squawking in my ear.

What if the sky did fall?

So what, if we track a bunch of “killer space rocks?” (Or what I would like to start calling “The New Crack,” in honor of not only Huey Lewis but also those people who are addicted to doomsday). What are we going to do about it?

A decade after the NEO search began in earnest engineers and scientists at NASA are acting under the direction of Congress to formulate a plan for dealing with threats from Near Earth Objects.

There is no shortage of ideas for mitigating the threat: gravity tractors, space tugboats, solar sails, nuclear blasts, the list goes on.

Perhaps the most intriguing project being planned is at the European Space Agency. The Don Quijote mission, with a planned launch in 2011, would send an impactor at the surface of a target asteroid, either 2002 AT4 or 1989 ML, neither asteroid represents a threat to Earth.

The mission would then attempt to measure the deflection resulting from the impact. Allowing us meek Earthlings the chance to glean some useful data about asteroid deflection, data that could be life saving in the future.

On the other side of the ocean, NASAs initial report on NEO deflection could be in the hands of Congress by the end of the year. (Unless they spend all of their money fueling and refueling the space shuttle while it sits idly on the launch pad).

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