February 15th, 2013
01:51 PM ET

A chance to prevent future asteroid impacts

Editor’s Note: Ed Lu is an explorer who loves mapping the unknown – whether it’s the oceans at Liquid Robotics, our neighborhoods, leading Google Advanced Projects Teams, or unveiling the secrets of the inner solar system and saving the world with the B612 Foundation, where he serves as CEO. A NASA Astronaut, he’s flown three missions, logging 206 days in space to construct and live aboard the International Space Station. Watch Ed Lu’s full plan to save the world, this Sunday 2:30 P.M. E.T. on “The Next List”

By Ed Lu, Special to CNN

Today's meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk is a reminder that the Earth orbits the Sun in a shooting gallery of asteroids, and that these asteroids sometimes hit the Earth.  Later today, a separate and larger asteroid, 2012 DA14, will narrowly miss the Earth passing beneath the orbits of our communications satellites.  We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but we cannot do anything about the objects we don't know exist.

Discovered just one year ago by an amateur citizen observer, 2012 DA14 will fly only 17 thousand miles above Earth - the distance the Earth travels in just 15 minutes, and not much longer than many people travel on common air flights. So this truly is a close shave. In fact, 2012 DA14 will pass underneath our communications satellites as it flies by Earth.

This particular object is not large for an asteroid; it is about 160 feet across or roughly the size of an office building. It is not going to hit us on February 15, but it should serve as a wake-up call for planetary defense. Consider that just 105 years ago, an asteroid slightly smaller than this struck Earth in Siberia near Tunguska and completely flattened a forested area of 1000 square miles, an expanse larger than New York City or Washington D.C.

Tunguska – 1000 square miles of trees blown over like matchsticks.

2012 DA14 is what is known as a near-Earth asteroid because its orbit crosses Earth’s orbit and it may therefore someday run into Earth. Millions of these asteroids exist, we just can’t see them from Earth. Of the million asteroids as large as or larger than 2012 DA14, we have only tracked less than 10,000. That we knew ahead of time that 2012 DA14 would buzz by Earth is really only a matter of luck. Ninety nine percent of the time we are oblivious to such impending flybys, simply because we currently don’t have the means to map and track the other 99 percent.

We established the non-profit B612 Foundation to protect humanity from asteroid impacts and, at the same time, open space to future exploration. Our Sentinel Mission is an infrared space telescope that we will launch and place in orbit around the Sun. From its vantage point looking back at Earth’s orbit, Sentinel will discover, map and track the trajectories of asteroids whose orbits approach Earth and threaten humanity. We will be the first privately funded, launched and operated interplanetary mission, and the most ambitious private space mission in history.

The Sentinel Map will give us decades of advance notice of an impending impact so that deflection becomes relatively easy. There are several promising technologies including kinetic impactors, gravity tractors and nuclear standoff explosions. The urgency in completing the map arises because there could be an impact in the next few decades. With only a few years' notice, the task of deflecting an asteroid becomes extremely difficult, to the point where it could become almost impossible (depending on the size of the asteroid) using current technology. Every year delayed in completing Sentinel increases our chances of having no available options. Why take this risk?

The chances in 90 years (roughly your lifetime) of Earth being hit by another asteroid like at Tunguska is about one in three. Shouldn’t we know in advance of the next asteroid impact, and actually prevent it?

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