It was almost immediately apparent at the start of the “Incoming! There’s an Asteroid with Earth’s Name on It” panel Fri at 5:30 PM in the Hilton Room 309-310 that I am not smart enough to be in that room. Much of what panelists Phil Plait and Mika McKinnon were talking about went right over my head. But what was clear is that potentially cataclysmic asteroid strikes may finally be getting the attention they need.
Plait noted the recent Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia got people thinking about the issue. Over a thousand people were injured when the shock wave from the meteor entering the atmosphere shattered windows, which Plait noted was probably the way he would be injured in such an event. It’s natural when you hear an explosion to go to the window to see what it is. What people didn’t realize was that the shock wave was already on its way.
Most monitoring of asteroids is currently being done by high school students participating in the Summer Science Program, a program of which McKinnon is an alumna. The program was started in 1959 and is the longest-running one dedicated to asteroid tracking. McKinnon had more information on hand for anyone who knows a high school student or someone who would eventually become a high school student. It is an international program for students going into either their junior or senior years of high school.
While a lot of the overview of the panel focused on the potential of death from above–the kind of death that is hypothesized to have contributed to killing off the dinosaurs–Plait did say that the technology to push aside a “dinosaur-killer” asteroid does currently exist, just not all in the same device. There are three basic steps to dealing with potential killer asteroids: finding them, categorizing them, and then diverting them. McKinnon noted that just finding them significantly reduces the risk of death by asteroid. In the end, both panelists agreed that it comes down to spending the money to test and assemble the various types of devices needed shift an asteroid’s orbit and ignoring the people who aren’t helping to solve the problem.
So, while it is true that the large “dinosaur-killer” asteroids are out there, it will be hundreds of years before one could potentially hit us. We have until then to figure this all out.