There’s a fascinating article and video clip in today’s New York Times about current research on near-Earth asteroids – like the one that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February. The Chelyabinsk asteroid released energy equivalent to a half-million tons of TNT and reportedly injured many hundreds of people in the region. It was sixty feet in width.
Scientists constantly worry about much, much bigger earthbound asteroids of, say, a kilometer in width. It’s what one retired NASA astronaut described as “end-of-civilization kind of dangerous.” The good news is that experts do not believe there is a risk of a big one hitting Earth anytime soon.
But even smaller ones can still be devastating. A 450-foot –wide asteroid could kill 50 million people and wipe out the global economy, according to scientists. And right now astronomers can only track 10 to 20 percent of the near-Earth asteroids of that size.
Hopefully, science and global cooperation will come to the rescue. One group of scientists is promoting a space telescope called Sentinel to find intermediate size asteroids, including ones less than 450 feet, but still potentially devastating, especially if they landed in high-population concentrations. A United Nations committee studying the issue is recommending that the world’s space agencies collaborate on technologies to deflect large, earth-bound asteroids.
Stay tuned. There’s a wave of new research out coming out on the near-Earth asteroid issue. Some of it will likely be terrifying; some of it reassuring. Those of us in the scenario-planning business will have more to think about in terms of scenario wild-cards. And all of us will enjoy at least a temporary distraction from the dismal state of politics here on Earth.