NASA's 25 years to save earth from the 'Doomsday asteroid'
Published 31/10/2011 | 05:00
A 20-MILLION-TONNE asteroid is hurtling through space at 23,000 miles per hour, on a collision course with Earth. But fear not -- NASA has 25 years to stop it.
When Paul Chodas and Steve Chesley arrived at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California's San Gabriel Mountains, on October 6, 2008, they assumed it would be a normal day.
The scientists worked for the space administration's Near Earth Object (NEO) programme, a team tasked with identifying comets, asteroids and meteors that potentially pose a threat to Earth. On that Monday morning, Mr Chodas noticed an asteroid about the size of a truck beyond the moon's orbit. It was on a collision course with Earth.
Mr Chesley began punching co-ordinates into his machine, to compute exactly where it would make contact. "I pulled out my 'National Geographic' atlas and Steve went on Google to look it up. We both reached the same conclusion: it was going to hit Sudan the following morning."
"We knew it was small and we were certain most of it would break up in the Earth's atmosphere so it didn't pose a hazard," Mr Chodas says. And as it happened, its remnants plunged into desert sand. Disaster was averted. That time. However, there are plenty more where that came from.
Earlier this year, news networks around the world warned of a 'doomsday asteroid'. Dubbed the 'continent killer', Apophis is a 250m-wide, 20-million-tonne chunk of rock, ice and dust, which apparently could 'land' on Earth, at about 23,000 miles per hour, in 25 years' time -- ie in most of our lifetimes.
There are two scenarios: the first is that Apophis will fly by in April 2029, and that's the last we'll see or hear of it.
The second is that it'll pass through what scientists refer to as a "keyhole" -- a small area of space that can alter the asteroid's course due to Earth's gravity. If this happens, it'll be on a massive collision course with us, likely to be on April 13, 2036.
An even likelier scenario is that we won't have to do anything at all. "This is nothing you have to panic about," says Amy Mainzer, a NASA research scientist. "It's a reasonably infrequent thing that doesn't happen very often."
Not very often. It's those three words that, for some reason, just don't seem enough. (© Daily Telegraph, London)