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The Hollywood version has an asteroid bearing down on the planet. Movies like “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact” and, “Don’t Look Up,” thrill viewers.

Scientists are now taking the threat in a more serious way. Astronomers found all of the big asteroids that would wreak planet-wide destruction. Just like the one that doomed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. They are not a danger.

There are many smaller asteroids. They would not set off mass extinctions, but they can unleash more energy than a nuclear bomb.

NASA showed how it would destroy one heading to this planet.

A spacecraft headed toward an asteroid. Well, not a real spacecraft, but one at a lab near Baltimore. it pursued its target — a small space rock seven million miles from Earth. The spacecraft in the lab collided with the asteroid.

“Humanity has now demonstrated the ability to target and alter the orbit of a celestial object,” a scientist said.

Hitting an asteroid with a high-speed projectile nudges its orbit. For an asteroid headed toward Earth, that could be enough to change a direct hit to a near miss.

The spacecraft had spotted the asteroid about an hour earlier, as a dot of light. Then, the pile of celestial rubble grew bigger and bigger, until the picture of the asteroid’s surface filled the screen. The mission’s engineers were on their feet, cheering.

Its signal stopped as it collided with the asteroid.

There is a growing focus on planetary defense. A new U.S.-financed telescope in Chile will scan the night sky and find thousands of potentially hazardous asteroids. A space-based telescope that NASA is working to build will find many hazardous asteroids.  Including some that are hard to spot from Earth.

If any of those asteroids turn out to be on a collision course with Earth, the mission shows that deflecting them is a realistic possibility.

This was a successful demonstration that an asteroid can be deflected, A scientist said, “I think that earthlings should sleep better. Definitely, I will.”

Source: The New York Times September 26, 2022

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