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Asteroid Day calls for action to confront deadly threat from space

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Dec 4, 2014, 19:27 UTC

Sen—Some of the biggest movers and shakers in science and space have come together to try to save the world from a devastating asteroid impact.

They are backing an event called Asteroid Day 2015, a bid to raise awareness of the very real threat of a collision between the Earth and a yet unknown giant rock from the depths of the Solar System.

Asteroid Day is scheduled for 30 June 2015 because that will be the anniversary of the biggest encounter in recent history with a cosmic missile. Something from outer space exploded over Tunguska in Siberia, in 1908, flattening a forest for around 2,000 sq km (850 sq miles).

Fortunately the region was sparsely inhabited, but had the impact occurred a few hours earlier it could have destroyed cities and caused huge loss of life.

Another reminder came in February 2013 when a super-bolide exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, destroying buildings, shattering glass and causing hundreds of injuries.

Asteroid Day was announced yesterday at an event hosted jointly at the London Science Museum and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. 

The UK’s Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, was joined by astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May to release the 100x Declaration, a call for a 100-fold increase in the detection and monitoring of asteroids.

Signatories to the Declaration include more than 100 scientists, including a host of astronauts, plus artists and business leaders from 30 countries. 

One of them, TV science presenter Professor Brian Cox told Sen: “It is the overriding responsibility of the human race to maximise our chances of survival in a dangerous Universe. 

“Asteroid impacts are one of the few natural threats that could destroy cities, countries or even the whole of civilisation in a single moment, and we must therefore take the threat seriously. 

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One suggestion to deal with a hazardous asteroid that has been discovered in good time is to fly a spacecraft alongside it to act as a gravitational tractor and steer it off its perilous orbit. Image credit: Dan Durda, FIAAA/B612 Foundation

“Fortunately, we can do something about it if we chose. Even more fortunately, investment in space exploration is a key driver of economic growth, technological and scientific progress, and a source of inspiration. 

“This would seem to present us with a win-win situation! Build an insurance policy against one of the greatest threats to our existance, and in doing so inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists to develop the technologies of the future. It’s so blindingly obvious that it just might work!”

The Declaration calls for three key actions. It wants available technology to be used to detect and track near-Earth asteroids that threaten human populations. It demands a rapid one-hundred-fold acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near Earth Objects.

And it calls for global adoption of Asteroid Day on 30 June, 2015, to heighten awareness of the asteroid hazard and our efforts to prevent future impacts.

Queen’s Dr May said in a statement: “The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it becomes that the human race has been living on borrowed time. We are currently aware of less than one per cent of objects comparable to the one that impacted at Tunguska, and nobody knows when the next big one will hit. It takes just one.”

Lord Rees said: “The ancients were correct in their belief that the heavens and the motion of astronomical bodies affect life on Earth—just not in the way they imagined.

”Sometimes those heavenly bodies run into Earth. This is why we must make it our mission to find asteroids before they find us.”

Three-times Shuttle astronaut Dr Ed Lu has long campaigned to do more about threatening asteroids, having helped set up the Sentinel Mission to build a spacecraft to track asteroids.

He said in a statement: “We have the technology to deflect dangerous asteroids through kinetic impactors and gravity tractors but only if we have years of advance warning of their trajectories. Now we need the resolve to go forward. It is the only natural disaster we know how to prevent.”