2011.03.30 Driving the gravity tractor

Written by David Green.

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.nok Hok
    GAMES DAY—Finn Molitierno (right) celebrates a goal during a game of Nok Hockey with his sister, Kyla. The two tried out a variety of games Saturday at Stair District Library’s annual International Games Day event. One of the activities featured a sort of scavenger hunt in which participants had to locate facts presented in the Smithsonian Hometown Teams exhibit. The traveling show left Morenci’s library Tuesday, wrapping up a series of programs that began Oct. 2. Additional photos are on page 7.
  • Station.2
    STRANGE STUFF—Morenci Elementary School students learn that blue isn’t really blue when seen through the right color of lens. Volunteer April Pike presents the lesson to students at one of the many stations brought to the school by the COSI science center. The theme of this year’s visit was the solar system.
  • Front.leaves
    MAPLE leaves show their fall colors in a puddle at Morenci’s Riverside Natural Area. “This was a great year for colors,” said local weather watcher George Isobar. Chilly mornings will give way to seasonable fall temperatures for the next two weeks.
  • Front.band
    MORENCI Marching Band member Brittany Dennis keeps the beat Friday during the half-time show of the Morenci/Pittsford football game. Color guard member Jordan Cordts is at the left. The band performed this season under the direction of Doyle Rodenbeck who served as Morenci’s band director in the 1970s. He’s serving as a substitute during a family leave.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • 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.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.

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