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Asteroids and Astronauts, Not a Good Mix

Science & Tech  (tags: asteroids, astronomy, space, study, research, nasa, Asteroid 2012 DA14, armageddon, discovery, science, world )

- 1930 days ago -
Asteroid 2012 DA14 - which is half the size of a football field - will fly past the Earth on Feb. 15, coming as close as 27,680 km. That's 8,000 km closer to the Earth than our geostationary communication satellites.

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Michael O (176)
Saturday February 9, 2013, 9:55 am
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

As Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield continues to keep his connection to the Earth with tweets, press conferences, songs and phone calls from the International Space Station, a connection from deep space will come his way next week, as an asteroid passes closer to the Earth than some satellites. Which raises a question: should we venture out to meet the asteroids before they come to us? Many scientists say no.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 - which is half the size of a football field - will fly past the Earth on Feb. 15, coming as close as 27,680 km. That's 8,000 km closer to the Earth than our geostationary communication satellites. That's also a record close encounter for an asteroid this size since NASA began regular surveys of them in the 1990s. Fortunately, the ISS is only 400 km up, so there is no risk to Chris Hadfield's life, or to anyone on Earth.

But had the arrival time of this flying mountain been just a little different, it could have obliterated the space station in an instant, or if it struck the Earth, produced an air burst explosion with the force of a nuclear weapon. Considering the asteroid was only discovered last year, it's another reminder of why we need to keep a careful watch on the large amount of high-speed debris that litters our solar system and places the Earth in a cosmic shooting gallery.

It is for that reason that NASA's plan for the next giant leap into space is to send astronauts out to an asteroid in the next decade, to get a close look at one of these potential threats to the planet. But a report from the US National Research Council in December questions whether that is a good idea.

The report says that a human mission to an asteroid may actually be more difficult and dangerous than a mission all the way to Mars, even though the asteroids are closer. Asteroids come in so many different sizes and forms, and there is a lot we don't know about them. Some are hard and metallic; others are loose conglomerations of rubble; some are icy. They tumble end over end as they race around the sun on eccentric orbits, so a rendezvous with one is not a simple task. Astronauts attempting to visit an asteroid would face many unknowns and find it tricky landing on a tiny rotating object that has almost no gravity.

Mars, on the other hand, is very well known, thanks to a fleet of robots that have been going there since the 1970s. Plus, Mars is an entire planet, not just a small piece of space debris, so the return on science from a Mars mission would be much greater than one to an asteroid.

Besides, robots have been doing a fine job of visiting several asteroids and comets over the past decades. Spacecraft have made close fly-pasts, placed themselves in orbit, landed on or even smashed into these objects to get a clearer picture of their nature. The next one, called OSIRIS Rex, scheduled for launch in 2016, will not only orbit an asteroid, it will take a sample from the surface and return it to Earth. Sending humans out there would be far more expensive, dangerous and almost redundant. And considering no asteroid has been selected yet as a target for human exploration, it makes it difficult to plan a mission.

It seems that asteroids and astronauts are a bad mix, whether they come to us or we go out to them.

The close encounter with 2012 DA14 will not be visible in North America, but the object will be tracked and imaged by radar. You can watch coverage of the event online.

g d c (0)
Saturday February 9, 2013, 10:15 am

leona m (0)
Saturday February 9, 2013, 10:21 am

Mitchell D (87)
Saturday February 9, 2013, 11:32 am
Yes, this asteroid is coming in at some 18,000 miles above the Earth. Some people may be in a location that will enable them to actually view it moving by, with a telescope!

Roger G (154)
Saturday February 9, 2013, 3:08 pm
noted, thanks !

Danuta W (1249)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 4:57 am

Jaime Alves (52)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 5:12 am

David C (131)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 5:32 am
just a reminder there is so much we don't know and don't have the ability to control.

Ro H (0)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 6:49 am

Mike M (40)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 9:08 am
I will wave

Theodore Shayne (56)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 9:26 am

Birgit W (160)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 1:26 pm

Nelson Baker (0)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 1:53 pm
Interesting. Thank you.

Bob hardly here P (394)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 3:22 pm

Tamara H (185)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 3:43 pm
Glad it is passing by and not dropping in for a visit. Thanks Michael.

Tanya W (65)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 5:52 am
Exciting stuff, thanks.
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