2011.03.30 Driving the gravity tractor

Written by David Green.


Can former astronaut Rusty Schweickart save us from extinction or will we go the way of the dinosaurs? Will we find someone to skillfully drive the gravity tractor or will we merely make things worse?

Those aren’t nice questions to ask on such a pretty, sunny morning. Oh, by the way, did you know that fireballs from space can be seen even on a sunny day like this, in broad daylight?

OK, so I just finished reading an article about NEOs (near-Earth objects). It sets you on edge for a while, but you soon forget about it and don’t even think about the asteroids flashing through our sky every night. Out of sight, out of mind. Unless you’re Rusty Schweickart.

Schweickart is considered a little loony by some people. They say he spent too much time in space and the radiation cooked his brain.

He doesn’t help himself when he makes statements like the following one. He talked to “New Yorker” writer Tad Friend about other space civilizations this way: “If there is a cosmic community out there, they will have already passed this test, of protecting themselves from asteroid impacts that could have wiped them out. If we want to join them, we have to do it, too.”

In other words, a few billion bucks will have to be spent on devising ways to deflect an asteroid that might be on a collision course with Earth.

It doesn’t happen often, but asteroid collisions are blamed by some scientists for three mass extinctions. The imprint of the most famous one is clearly visible in 3-D imaging from space. It’s on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That one is known as the dinosaur killer.

More recently, there was the mysterious explosion in Siberia in 1908 that flattened 830 square miles of desolate forest. Scientists believe there was no actual impact because there’s no crater. It’s believed that a sizable asteroid blew up before impact and sent an enormous shock wave to the Earth’s surface. That was the last major impact.

In 2008, an asteroid the size of an S.U.V. slammed into the desert in Sudan. Another was clearly visible streaking over Saskatchewan. A year later, one blew up high above Indonesia that was said to have the power of three atomic bombs.

Just last month a rock weighing several tons was seen blazing across the sky. People from Massachusetts to Maryland saw it—in daylight!

So what are we doing about it? We’re thinking. Some of us are worrying. 

NASA budgets about .03 percent of its funds to “planetary defense.” The consequences of a collision are huge, but the odds of it happening are small. This is when they start running the fatality-per-year numbers. The Yucatán incident, by the way, happened about 65 million years ago.

The Planetary Defense task force knows its job is a sticky wicket. You could send up a big bomb in an effort to deflect an asteroid off course before it hits Earth, but you first need to know what it’s made of. Some asteroids are solid rock; some are collections of rubble. The bomb might not deflect it; it might create dozens of smaller pieces.

There’s a big asteroid named Apophis that was once predicted to have a one-in-30 chance of hitting us in April 2029—on Friday the 13th, of all dates. Now the odds are down to about zero, but it could be trouble when it orbits back into our neighborhood in 2036.

So do we try to deflect its orbit? But wait, the calculations might be slightly off and our deflection could actually put it right on track for an impact. Just to make you feel more relaxed, I’ll mention that the Russian space agency already announced plans to deflect Apophis.

Another idea suggests using laser beams to change the temperature of the asteroid’s surface which will, in turn, alter its speed and orbit. Another, the gravity tractor, would position a space craft over the asteroid, with gravity altering the trajectory.

Maybe the money will be found to place a telescope on Venus so we’ll have a better view of what’s out there. That way, even though we won’t know what to do about it, at least we’ll have a much more precise reason to be scared to death.

  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.base Ball
    UMPIRE Thomas Henthorn tosses the bat between team captains Mikayla Price and Chuck Piskoti of Flint’s Lumber City Base Ball Club. Following the 1860 rules, after the bat was grabbed by the captains, captains’ hands advanced to the top of the bat—one hand on top of the other. The captain whose hand ended up on top decided who would bat first. Additional photos of Sunday’s game appear on page 12 of this week’s Observer. The contest was organized in conjunction with Stair District Library’s Hometown Teams exhibit that runs through Nov. 20.
  • Front.chat
    VALUE OF ATHLETICS—Morenci graduate John Bancroft (center) takes a turn at the microphone during a chat session at the opening of the Hometown Teams exhibit at Stair District Library. Clockwise to his left is John Dillon, Jed Hall, Jim Bauer, Joe Farquhar, George Hollstein, George Vereecke and Mike McDowell. Thomas Henthorn (at the podium) kicked off the conversation. Henthorn, a University of Michigan–Flint professor, will return to Morenci this Sunday to lead a game of vintage base ball at the school softball field.
  • Front.cross
    HUDSON RUNNER Jacob Morgan looks toward the top of the hill with dismay during the tough finish at Harrison Lake State Park. Fayette runner Jacob Garrow focuses on the summit, also, during the Eagle Invitational cross country run Saturday morning. Continuing rain and drizzle made the course even more challenging. Results of the race are in this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.
  • Front.crossing
    Crossing over—Jim Heiney was given a U.S. flag to carry by George Vereecke (behind Jim in the hat), turning him into the leader of the parade. Bridge Walk participants cross over Bean Creek while, in the background, members of the Morenci Legion Riders cross the main traffic bridge on East Street South. Additional photos appear on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.hose Testing
    HOSE safety—The FireCatt hose testing company from Troy put Morenci Fire Department hose to the test Monday morning when Mill Street was closed to traffic. The company also checks nozzles and ladders for wear in an effort to keep fire fighters safe while on calls.

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