NASA aims to capture, redirect small asteroid for exploration

Chicxulub Crater

Gravity and magnetic field data showed the outline of the buried crater Chicxulub. (Photo: V.L. Sharpton, LPI via NASA)

NASA says the agency’s 2014 budget will include funds aimed at capturing and redirecting a small asteroid.

NASA hopes to “redirect it safely to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where astronauts can visit and explore it.”

The announcement preceded a couple of asteroid fly-bys, including one on Wednesday when 2014 DX110 passed by Earth on a path “closer than the distance from Earth to the moon.” The agency said the asteroid was estimated at about 100 feet across; at one point, it was about 217,000 miles from Earth.

Another asteroid, 2014 CU13 is expected to pass by Earth on Sunday, March 9. NASA told media that 21 small asteroids, in the last 12 months, came closer than 2014 DX 110.

In November, 2013 NASA’s Hubble telescope saw an asteroid with six comet-like tails, and experts called it a “never before seen set.”  A news release reported astronomers’ reactions:

We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it,’ said lead investigator David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. ‘Even more amazing, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid.’”

concept image astronaut

This concept image shows an astronaut storing a sample that was collected from the captured asteroid. (Photo: NASA)

While eons can go by without a major global catastrophe from asteroid or comet impact on Earth, experts are learning more about such events. In 2003 a large crater was discovered buried beneath a kilometer of rocks and sediment. The crater dubbed Chicxulub is located on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

The consequence of such an impact is true climate change. After years of debate, many experts agree that an impact event connected to Chicxulub 65 million years ago had a devastating effect on Planet Earth:

“Most scientists now agree it’s the ‘smoking gun’—evidence that a huge asteroid or comet indeed crashed into Earth’s surface 65 million years ago causing the extinction of more than 70 percent of the living species on the planet, including the dinosaurs. This idea was first proposed by the father and son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980.”

The asteroid that may have created Chicxulub is believed to have been 6-12 miles wide.

Dr. David Trilling, Northern Arizona University, answered some questions about asteroid impacts on Earth for WAMC Public Radio (Northeast). Asked what happens if an asteroid gets too close to Earth, Trilling said:

“It happens more often than you’d think. In early January, an asteroid was discovered just a few hours before it burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Last February, it happened not once, but twice. Astronomers knew months ahead of time that one of the asteroids would fly safely past the Earth.

While our telescopes were tracking that asteroid, a completely unrelated asteroid entered the atmosphere high over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk and exploded, causing extensive damage and injuries – mostly from flying glass. Fortunately there were no fatalities.

Why didn’t we see the Chelyabinsk impactor coming? Because that asteroid was coming from the direction of the Sun, no nighttime telescopes could have seen it. We were literally blindsided.”

There’s an ongoing debate about whether Chicxulub was caused by a comet or an asteroid, as well as what happens after the impact according to NASA researcher Dr. Kevin Pope:

“Much about Chicxulub remains mysterious. ‘We don’t know exactly how the impact caused the mass extinctions…We believe it did, but we don’t know what the kill mechanism was. One theory is that the impact threw up so much dust into the atmosphere than it obscured the Sun and stopped plants from growing. Another is that the sulfur released by the impact lead to global sulfuric acid clouds that also blocked the Sun and fell as acid rain. Global wild fires triggered by the atmospheric reentry of red-hot debris from the impact are another possibility.”

Whatever conclusions eventually emerge about asteroid or comet collisions with Earth, one conclusion is safe—that is a potential cause of climate change most can agree on.

NASA has scheduled an Asteroid Initiatives Opportunities Forum for March 26.

 

(Filed by Kay B. Day/March 6, 2013)

About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.

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