Asteroid Impact More Common Than Most Think, But Is Anyone Doing Anything About It? [VIDEO]

By Ben Wolford on April 24, 2014 5:57 PM EDT

The trail of a meteorite streaks the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, where one of the 26 nuclear-sized meteor explosions between 2000 and 2013 took place. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The trail of a meteorite streaks the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, where one of the 26 nuclear-sized meteor explosions between 2000 and 2013 took place. (Photo: Shutterstock)

About once every six months, high in the atmosphere, an asteroid traveling thousands of miles per hour descends on the planet. These rocks almost never reach the ground in tact, though, because their route through the vacuum of space is disturbed by the accumulation of air particles. Friction builds, and in a blinding flash they explode with the force of a nuclear bomb.

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Recently, a group called the B612 Foundation, which is led by retired astronauts, held a press conference in Seattle to plug their organization's mission: defending the planet against asteroids large enough to cause damage on Earth. They were armed with new findings from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, which monitors the globe for nuclear bomb detonations. Between 2000 and 2013, the group's sensors detected 26 nuclear-sized blips all over the planet, from the coast of Antarctica to central California.

But none of them were bombs. Asteroids ranging from 1-20 kilotons pelt the Earth at random. Only one, the Chelyabinsk Meteor of February 2013, actually did any terrestrial damage where more than 1,000 were injured by the shockwave. Experts estimate that an asteroid large enough to destroy a city collides with our planet about once every 100 years. Ed Lu, co-founder of the B612 Foundation, cautions that this is merely an average. "Because we don't know where or when the next major impact will occur," he says, "the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a 'city-killer' sized asteroid has been blind luck."

NASA can predict a lot of things, from Mars oppositions 273 years in the future to the trajectory of space debris that could collide with our satellites. But no one can predict when asteroids in Earth's orbit, known as "near-Earth objects," will cross our path. When the meteorite hit Chelyabinsk, NASA's scientists learned about it after the fact, on Twitter. At a hearing in March, Congress quizzed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. about what we'd do if a city-killer were headed for New York City in three weeks. "Things have happened," Bolden replied. "You gotta pray."

To its credit, NASA is perhaps the world's only space agency that's done something to locate and track near-Earth objects. In the 1990s, they launched a program using Earth-based telescopes to gaze at the sky for asteroids. Since then, they've identified about 90 percent of asteroids one kilometer wide or larger — rocks large enough to wipe out civilization if they hit. But more than 1 million asteroids large enough to destroy a city remain undiscovered. That's because they're small, they're pitch black, and hard for terrestrial telescopes to see.

In 2018, B612 Foundation plans to launch a spacecraft equipped with an infrared telescope called Sentinel that will track hundreds of thousands more asteroids. It will cost $400 million, and many experts say that with NASA funding (and bureaucracy) what it is, Sentinel is the planet's best hope. When I spoke with Lu earlier this year, he assured me that Sentinel "is going to find something that's going to hit the Earth." When it does, NASA has an arsenal of tools to deflect it off course. He just worries that Sentinel won't get off the ground in time. "Wouldn't it be ironic if we get wiped out even though we have the technology to do something about it?"


Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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