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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soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Douglas

    An asteroid scanning telescope is not enough; it is needed to build a spacecraft able to go far away from LEO. A fusion-powered spacecraft is powerful and secure, and can go beyond the asteroid belt to intercept any incoming object in order to protect the Earth in advance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUrt186pWoA

    March 13, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply
  2. xeno

    If the dinosaurs had the technologyto prevent astroid collisions we can only imagine how advanced they would surely be by now!

    February 22, 2013 at 12:22 am | Reply
  3. deno

    yep the years r going to go by REALLY quick...

    February 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  4. Sage Thinker

    Thank you Ed Lu and the B612 Foundation for being pro-active in saving humanity! We are all passengers on spaceship earth!

    February 17, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  5. Billeeto

    This report, like so many on this show, involves scientists asking for more money. That's fine, but when they categorically deny any connection between asteroid DA 14 and the Chelyabinsk meteorite or the meteor over San Francisco, it shows arrogance and ignorance and argues against giving these people any more money. This guy Ed Lu is a sweet guy, with a great track record, but he ain't too perceptive or deep if he doesn't consider the serious possibility of a connection that we missed totally. If we have the keystone cop scientists on the case, what can we expect? Saying there is no connection and that its a coincidence smacks of the same kind of unlikely whitewash we got when the Benghazi consulate went up in smoke on 9/11 and they said there was no connection with terrorists. They corrected that record later. Let's hope scientists will have the humility to declare that they were clueless on these ones too.

    February 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • The Rev Dr Sherwood Forrester

      The reason scientists say that the three objects are not related is because all current observed evidence indicates that they are not related - they came from different directions, and they appear to have different compositions, and that means they are most likely three different and unrelated objects. It's as simple as that. No one is hiding secret data; it was a remarkable coincidence, certainly, but nothing more than that, and if evidence *does* turn up that they will be related, the first people to say "Well, whaddya know, they *are* related" will be the very same scientists that you slander here. No doubt you will then accuse them of conducting a cover-up rather than doing what they're supposed to do: make observations and make theories based on those observations.

      If you really think this is just a ploy for money, then you understand neither the scientific method, nor basic astronomy, nor the genuinely existential risk that an asteroid strike could represent to the human race.

      February 21, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  6. Ted J.

    All the money that is spent on the space station and space exploration vehicles should instead be spent on asteriod and meteor protection of the earth. Should this not be the worlds number one priority. We can and should do this. Let wake up before its to late!

    February 17, 2013 at 6:49 am | Reply
  7. G

    The meteor and asteroid are late. they should have shown up on december 21 2012

    February 17, 2013 at 4:03 am | Reply
  8. G

    The asteroid and meteor are late. Shouldn't they both have shown up on Dedember 21 2012?

    February 17, 2013 at 4:01 am | Reply
  9. reggie

    Let the darned things come on. Good lord.

    February 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  10. Screwball

    Could this happen in real life?
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNtsVP42bOE&w=640&h=390]

    February 16, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply
    • DLMuerte

      Yes, although it probably won't happen any time soon... If we do come across it, we would be able to see it and could possibly create a countermeasure. I'm not sure if nukes would work... as they failed the first time in that movie. Of course, movies do not determine fact.

      February 16, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Reply
      • Adam

        nope. if some thing of that size hit the ocean, first it would be vaporized, those people would definitely not be standing there since the shockwave would have killed them and that scene forgot the huge dust cloud that would cover the earth and choke out all life from the planet. that is why I scoff at all attempts of asteroid prevention due to the fact there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WE COULD DO. And before anybody says Armageddon in that movie they kind of forgot the splitting of the asteroid into several pieces still killing everyone

        February 27, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  11. plumbline

    Luke 21:25-26........

    ........The Coming of the Son of Man..................

    ........25 “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; 26 men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken...............

    February 16, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  12. Hank

    Next they will tell us there working on controlling when the wind blows.

    February 16, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  13. Hank

    Nobody will ever be able to prevent rocks from outter space, no matter what size, from hitting the earth. It's totally useless to even discuss that possibility. we can't even balance the budget, stop world hunger, or get along for that matter...

    February 16, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • Hank

      We would be better off if they figured out how to prevent airplanes from falling out of the sky...

      February 16, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  14. springthecat

    It's unlikely the powers that be would tell you if an asteroid would actually hit the Earth anyway. What you don't know CAN hurt you. The Russian meteor had been tracked and impact determined for quite awhile. We were told through the media that it actually was destroyed by the atmosphere and no fragments had actuallly hit the Earth's surface. Well, except for all the fragments that were found, including a crater near a lake roughly 20 feet in diameter. And don't forget the talking heads telling us that if the Asteroid DA14 did hit the Earth, it would not leave a crater!!! Bizarre!

    So where does that leave us? The media is just as culpable as the government for feeding us obvious BS

    February 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Reply
  15. unaft

    Send Drones to the space!

    February 16, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  16. Alejo c Morales

    SALVATION is free..be prepare...*

    February 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  17. Alejo c Morales

    All this time they spend looking at the skys, could'nt they see this coming..How can we protect ourselves form sumthing like this?...*

    February 16, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  18. Alejo c Morales

    Thank you cnn feeling much better now..untill the next one...*

    February 16, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  19. ji.mbo

    what if an impact kills only a few million and leaves the rest of us without cable?

    February 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Reply
    • The Haughty Proud

      Wha'chew talkin 'bout, Jimbo? Iz got cable, Iz got backup, Iz got magik sheeld frum dum ol rok...

      February 16, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  20. Mike

    Appreciate the article Dr. Lu. Too bad these types of article don't interest most CNN readers. Perhaps Wired Science would of been a better outlet.

    February 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Reply
    • Lucifer's Hammer

      It'll interest them on That Day...

      February 16, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  21. Ductape

    This was seen a year ago.
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALOkrq0j_Ok&w=640&h=390]

    February 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Reply
    • Hottie

      So you're saying Nibiru is small, late, and puny?

      Kinda like my ex...

      February 16, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  22. martin martinez

    deflect it to north korea.

    February 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • Puck

      No, they'd probably sh** all over it or something.

      February 16, 2013 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  23. funny man

    so.....i guess the best solution would be to send Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and a team of oil miners into space along with a russian astronaut to stop the asteroid from hitting.....

    February 15, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  24. empresstrudy

    Throw Chris Matthews at it.

    February 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  25. ug

    I hope an astroid hits DC!

    February 15, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  26. Wally Fairway

    So do we need to go to kickstarter.com to fund this project?

    February 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  27. The Flamingo Kid

    Tunguska was really an atomic bomb NOT a meteorite.

    February 15, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • ug

      Prove it...

      February 15, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Reply
    • Hurricane74

      I would like to meet the culture that could build atom bombs in 1908.

      February 15, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Reply
    • Hottie

      No, it was a movie. You should have been there. No, really. You should have.

      February 16, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Puck

      Wasn't that movie about a squadron of black pilots who spontaneously exploded over Russia in 1908 while the Bataan Death March went into April? Or something? No?

      February 16, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  28. REPLY TO 2

    WELL DUDE SERIOUSLY ITS NOT A MATTER OF SCI-FI ANYMORE.
    SUCH STUFF CAN ACTUALLY HAPPEN.
    SWITCH ON UR TV AND U WILL KNOW ABOUT THE RUSSIAN METEOR HIT, NOT LONG BEFORE WE FACE ABIGGER ONE LIKE.
    WE REALLY NEED TO BE PREPARED

    February 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Reply
    • Todd

      What for? You think you gonna live more than 80 years? lol. You will die one way or the other. If you die from an meteorite its quicker and less painful, if it lands directly on top a yous. There is no point stopping nature. Praying is just about the only thing that could stop it. Our technology isnt advanced enough to stop a carrot from hitting earth, let alone a mass of 10 tons.

      February 15, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Reply
      • Jon

        Right, therefore let's not try to save any lives ever because we all die eventually...

        Give me a break.

        February 15, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
      • Hottie

        Maybe your technology, Todd. Our technology is perfectly capable of moving things heavier than carrots.

        You should bring your technology up to speed, Todd...

        February 16, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
      • Adam

        THANK GOD. thank you Todd while i do not agree to the carrot thing on the subject of an actual threat, we are completely screwed. case closed go to any astrophysicist ask them this question and they will all say "no, we are screwed"

        February 27, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  29. bromiitheusrex

    "Probably not an issue of prevention."

    Really? If we can detect them just changing their paths by inches can make them miss entirely.

    Small minded.

    February 15, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  30. laughing

    seen much sci fi movies lately ?

    February 15, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      We've already done one mission(2005) where we impacted a comet(Tempel1) with a probe (Deep Impact, yeah like the movie). So the technology to find an object, send a probe to it and give it a 'tap' accurately already exists. So I guess it falls into the realm of science fact more than science fiction.

      February 15, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  31. Pete

    Probably not an issue of prevention, but of damage control. Give enough time to evacuate the impact area, if possible.

    February 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • Riff Raff

      Thanks Pete, first sensible post I've read here.

      February 16, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Reply
    • Puck

      And if there is no time? Then what? Oops, too late. They're all dead. Next contestant please!

      February 16, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Reply

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