The skies have spoken, and their message was one of concern.
Early Friday, while people around the world watched and waited for an asteroid half the size of a football field, 2012 DA14, to skim by the Earth between the orbits of communications and navigational satellites, a smaller undetected asteroid fragment exploded over Russia, generating a shock wave that damaged structures in the city of Chelyabinsk and injured a reported 1,200 people.
In the skies over distant Cuba and the Bay Area of California, witnesses also reported bright streaks in the skies, but no injuries.
Astronomers in Europe and theUnited States quickly determined the drama over Russia and the passage of 2012 DA14 were coincidence, though one that was remarkable.
Nonetheless, the cosmic drama ignited anew the debate over the measures humanity has been slow to take to not only detect Near Earth Objects that pose the threat of regional as well as global catastrophe, but deflect them. In 1908, a NEO the size of 2012 DA14 exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia. The blast wave leveled a forested but sparsely population region of about 800 square miles. A larger impact 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and much of the life on Earth.
“Today’s events are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science,” said U. S. Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “Asteroid 2012 DA14 passed just 17,000 miles from Earth, less than the distance of a round trip from New York to Sydney. And this morning, a much smaller meteorite hit near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, damaging buildings and injuring hundreds.”
The Science Committee, which sets Congressional policy for NASA and other federal science agencies, will soon hold a hearing on the incidents, Smith pledged.
InRussia, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin supported those calling for new systems capable of identifying and preventing threats from Near Earth Objects.
“Humankind must create a system to identify and neutralize objects that pose a danger to the Earth” Rogozin said by Twitter, a day after the explosion.
The blast over Chelyabinsk produced by the 50 foot long asteroid released an estimated amount of energy equal to 300 kilotons of TNT. The blast wave generated as the rock shattered at an altitude of about 12 miles caused an estimated $33 million in damages as well as hundreds of injuries.
In theU. S., Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut who leads the B612 Foundation issued a stern warning from the non profit group that plans private missions to chart and track asteroids that cross the Earth’s orbit with its Sentinel series of space observatories.
“The B612 Foundation believes we should find threatening asteroids before they find us. The undetected meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk is our wake-up call that the Earth orbits the Sun in a shooting gallery of asteroids, and that these asteroids sometimes hit the Earth. On this same day, a separate and larger asteroid, 2012 DA14, narrowly missed the Earth passing beneath the orbits of our communications satellites,” Lu noted.
“We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but we cannot do anything about the objects we don’t know exist,” he added.” To date, less than 1% of asteroids larger than the one that leveled Tunguska in 1908 have been tracked.”
Currently, B612 plans its inaugural Sentinel launch in 2018.
At the moment, humanity lacks the mature technologies to deflect an asteroid headed for a certain impact.