Like most of us in this economy, NASA has had to make some budget cuts. When they released their 2014 budget, it cut over $55 million from the previous year. Planetary studies have been hurt the most with 300 million cut from the budget. Looking at this, it’s clear that studying our solar system is just not a priority anymore; NASA is taking new directions with its research and some of its new plans are quite exciting.
For Example, NASA is increasing its funding to support Earth science; tracking man made and natural changes to our planet, including pollution and climate changes. The idea is that hopefully learning more about how to protect our planet and to protect ourselves.
In addition, there is also a program in place to start manned missions into space once again. I’ve written about this before when I mentioned the Orion Spacecraft, the first manned spacecraft designed for interplanetary orbit in 30 years. NASA is already building the space capsule, and the whole project should be finished by 2021.
BUT, there is one item on the NASA budget that seems right out of science fiction- The capture and mining of ASTEROIDS!
That’s right, President Obama approved a new project designed to send a special craft out into space for the purposes of finding and capturing a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA), and then bringing it back down to Earth to study, and eventually mine it for its contents. This might sound like something out of a James Cameron movie, but it really is part of the NASA budget, and the project is getting underway as we speak.
So why mine asteroids? To answer this question, I’ll break down the arguments and, (to continue with the Sci-Fi theme I’ve begun), I’m going to list them one by one, and name them after some awesome Sci-fi movie titles.
1. The Abyss/ Avatar-
According to scientific estimates, one asteroid may contain over $20 TRILLION dollars worth of precious metals, as well as iron, nickel, and cobalt. Ultimately, it might improve NASA’s budget and the world economy greatly to invest in asteroid mining. Plus, unlike Avatar, all of these asteroids would be uninhabited, making mining comparatively easy from a socio-political standpoint. Still, as you can see from the video above, to make this plan economically viable on a large scale we would need to develop vastly superior rockets, to keep the cost of sending rockets up into space all the time lower than the profits reaped from the asteroids themselves. As far fetched as this idea may seem, companies are already working to make it a reality. Imagine NASA beginning a new industry as unlimited as the universe itself!
2. Titan AE
If our planet were to suffer a cataclysm, (which could literally happen any day now), we will need to find a new way of getting water, oxygen, and the ingredients to create plant life. In addition to precious metals, asteroids also contain all of these. Bits of oxygen and hydrogen are locked up within the rocks. In addition, we know that asteroids contain ingredients for life, since 3.5 billion years ago, they helped develop life on our own planet. Therefore, if we ever need to leave the Earth, it makes more sense to mine our raw materials from asteroids, rather than taking everything with us. Of course, getting us off the Earth, is a much bigger problem:
As the Russian meteor explosion grimly reminded us, Earth could literally be hit by an asteroid at any time without warning. This is why the primary goal of the Asteroid Retrieval project is to study asteroids and determine how best to combat a potential threat. Lest we forget, an asteroid destroyed entire species on our planet 65 million years ago, and we need to be careful to make sure it doesn’t happen to us (cue the dramatic music).
So there you are, the major reasons why it’s a good idea to find asteroids and bring them back here. We eagerly await NASA making this project a reality, so that they make space a safer and more profitable place to live. As one more treat, here is a NASA animation of how the project might look, with dramatic Hollywood music underscoring for good measure.
With the recent asteroid pass over Earth, and the Russian meteor that exploded last week, I thought this would be a perfect time to have a bit of a discussion about asteroids.
What are Asteroids?- An asteroid is basically a rock that floats in space. They do not have any atmosphere, and are too small to be considered plaents. Most asteroids are part of a vast belt between Mars and Jupiter nearly 60 miles wide. According to Space.com, the belt has over 750,000 asteroids floating within. Asteroids are generally made of rock, but they often contain gasses like Nitrogen and Hydrogen at their cores. NASA has 3 different classifications of asteroids- Class C, (which are mostly made of Carbon), are the most common, and appear gray, like DA14 and the Russian meteor.
The biggest asteroid ever seen is technically also a dwarf planet named Ceres, discovered in 1801. It is nearly 600 miles across and orbits around Mars and Jupiter.
Difference between Asteroid and Meteors. An asteroid is an asteroid, asl long as it does not pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, then we re-name the object a meteor, commonly known as a “shooting star.” Like fireworks, meteors burn with a variety of different colors, depending on the chemical composition of the metals of which they are made.
Once the meteor finally hits the Earth’s surface, it is re-classified again as a meteorite. Over 10 tons of meteors hit the Earth every day, but by the time they get through the mile-long journey through the Earth’s atmosphere, the meteors are reduced to dusty grains no bigger than the sand you find on the beach.
Meteors have crashed into the Earth, Moon, and other planets since the beginning of time. Over three billion years ago, asteroids containing the carbon and oxygen like outer-space care packages, hit the Earth, causing the planet’s atmosphere to slowly change from mostly methane gas, to its breathable state that supports living beings. On the Moon, asteroid collisions formed the craters that we see when we look at the Moon through telescopes. Some even speculate that the Moon might have been formed with an asteroid crashed into the Earth, sending molten rock into space that eventually cooled down to form the current Moon. As you can see in the picture on the left, meteors do still occasionally hit the Earth, although most of them burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere
Have there been any recent close calls with asteroids besides the Russian meteor? You may know that the same night as the Russian meteor, a much larger asteroid called DA 14 flew harmlessly by the Earth. Last year some speculated that DA14 would be eventually strike the Earth, and bring about the fabled 2012 Mayan apocalypse. However, these are only the most famous recent close calls. According to the International Astronomy Union (IAU), over 900 Near Earth Asteroids have been observed since 2011. A NEA is defined as an asteroid that passes within 1.3 Astronomical Units, or the distance between the Earth and the Sun. One of the most frightening examples occurred over the Mediterranean Sea. Space and Defense agencies warned that a sea impact could actually be worse than a land impact, as it could create massive tidal waves that could drown the whole country. Fortunately the meteor disintegrated before hitting the planet. General Simon Worden delivered a speech where he expressed relief that the asteroid didn’t impact, or even worse, be mistaken by mediterranean countries as hostile fire, and therefore an act of war:
The event of this June caused little or no notice as far as we can tell. But had it occurred at the same latitude, but a few hours earlier, the result on human affairs might have been much worse. Imagine that the bright flash accompanied by a damaging shock wave had occurred over Delhi, India or Islamabad, Pakistan? Neither of those nations have the sophisticated sensors we do that can determine the difference between a natural NEO impact and a nuclear detonation. The resulting panic in the nuclear-armed and hair-trigger militaries there could have been the spark that would have ignited the nuclear horror we’d avoided for over a half-century. This situation alone should be sufficient to get the world to take notice of the threat of asteroid impact- Gen. Worden, quoted in SpaceRef.com.
How are scientists studying these asteroids? Scientists all over the globe are keeping close watch for Near Earth Asteroids with ground based telescopes and space probes. In fact, the Canadian Space Agency just launched a new satellite early last week designed to track asteroids and other Near Earth Objects: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/satellites/neossat/default.asp
Not to be outdone, NASA is also developing the NEAR program, and Russia has the Planetary Defense League. Plans are also underway for a new system of telescopes designed to give everyone on Earth a week’s head’s up for an imminent asteroid impact called the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) to be ready in 2015.
Why didn’t scientists predict the Russian meteor? Simply put, the meteor, (which has been described by NASA as a “little asteroid”), was too small for the space agencies to detect.
Could an asteroid destroy the Earth? To be honest- yes. Although the planet Jupiter, with its massive size helps considerably in deflecting asteroids, an asteroid could impact the Earth at any moment. If the asteroid is of sufficient size, its impact could send dust into the atmosphere, blotting out the Sun. This would effectively kill all life on Earth. We know this is true because it’s exactly what killed the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. This is why studying asteroids is so important.
How to prepare for an asteroid apocalypse– Discovery Magazine.com has provided a list of 10 ways to stop an asteroid for fun, which I have linked to here. My personal favorite is the plan to paint the asteroid with light-deflecting paint, to hopefully use solar radiation to push it away.
Well, hope that satisfies your craving for outer-space knowledge. As you know, although asteroids and meteors are fairly common, they only rarely hit the Earth. With any luck, our planet will be safe from a catastrophe for a long, long time.
HOOLY COW! What a week it has been- between the asteroids going across the globe, a comet in Australia, meteors in Russia, and lightning strikes in Rome; it seems like the gods of astronomy are working overtime to make this a very fascinating week. I have posted a recap of this week’s events on Today In Astronomy to fill you in on anything you missed, with the best reporting the web can offer!
Asteroid DA 14 is due in the skies in North America in the next two hours, so I thought I’d provide links to the best live coverage. First, here’s a
live feed from NASA that begins at 9PM EST:
Secondly, here’s a compilation of clips from astronomers at SLOOH.com, which was featured on Dateline last night:
That’s all I got for now, I gotta get ready for the tour tonight!