If NASA has its way, the human race won't be going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.
The space agency is teaming up with the National Nuclear Security Administration to work on a planetary defense plan to deflect a potential doomsday asteroid so it doesn't strike Earth, according to The New York Times.
Last week's announcement came ahead of the first official "Asteroid Day" on June 30, a day scientists hope will raise awareness of the threat posed by near-Earth objects and encourage governments to develop a better plan to detect and track them.
June 30 is the anniversary of the 1908 impact of an asteroid in Siberia that wiped out some 800 square miles of forest. The surprise impact of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor, which caused a 500-kiloton airburst over Russia, shows potentially threatening space rocks are still out there.
“There are swarms of them orbiting between Mars and Jupiter,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said at a 2013 panel discussion of asteroids. “And some of them have orbits that come in a little too close, and cross the orbit of Earth around the Sun.”
Dealing with a threatening near-Earth object isn't as simple as aiming a nuclear weapon at it.
In 2013, researchers at the Asteroid Deflection Research Center at Iowa State University came up with a plan to use a two-section spacecraft to first smash a hole in the asteroid, then dump a nuclear weapon into the crater to blow it up.
Bong Wie, the center's director, told Space.com that 99 percent of the pieces left would miss Earth, and most of the rest would burn up in the atmosphere. However, NASA said those smaller pieces could still pose a problem, and the best approach is to deflect rather than destroy.
"The trick is to gently nudge the asteroid out of harm's way and not to blow it up," the agency states on its Near Earth Objects website.
Setting off a nuclear weapon above the surface of the asteroid would cause a slight change in velocity without damaging the asteroid itself.
It's not exactly the big Hollywood finish, but it might be the most effective option.
"A very modest velocity change in the asteroid's motion (only a few millimeters per second), acting over several years, can cause the asteroid to miss the Earth entirely," the agency said.
NASA has also said that some asteroids may be deflected without the use of a nuclear weapon.
"For the far more numerous asteroids that are smaller than a few hundred meters in diameter, if we have adequate early warning of several years to a decade, a weighted robotic spacecraft could be targeted to collide with the object, thereby modifying its velocity to nudge the trajectory just enough that the Earth impact would be avoided," the space agency wrote in another report.
The problem, the agency said, is that we may not have "several years to a decade."
"Since the number of near-Earth asteroids increases as their sizes decrease, we are most likely to be hit by the relatively small objects that are most difficult to find ahead of time," the agency said. "As a result, consideration must also be given to the notification and evacuation of those regions on Earth that would be affected by the imminent collision of a small, recently-discovered impactor."
Although researchers are working to change that, at least one expert isn't convinced we're ready.
Retired astronaut Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, who was was part of the Apollo 9 mission in 1969, is co-founder of the B612 Foundation, an organization dedicated to planetary defense against asteroids. B612 is hoping to launch Sentinel, a privately funded spacecraft that would be able to detect and track potentially hazardous objects in space.
In an interview with Newsweek, Schweickart didn't sound especially positive about the ability of nations to unite against a global threat.
“I fear there’s not enough of a collective survival instinct to really overcome the centrifugal political forces,” he said. “That is, in a nutshell, the reason we’ll get hit. Not because technically we don’t know it’s coming, or we can’t do something about it.”
The founders of Asteroid Day, which include Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, have created the 100x Asteroid Declaration, which calls on governments to increase by a hundredfold the discovery and tracking of near-Earth objects. Along with May, backers of the declaration include Bill Nye, Carolyn Shoemaker, Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield, Mark Kelly, Lord Martin Rees and Richard Dawkins, as well as Schweickart and his fellow B612 cofounder Ed Lu.