People of Earth, beware: There is a 30% chance that an asteroid the size of the one that exploded over Russia or bigger will hit our planet in the next 100 years, former astronaut Ed Lu, told a U.S. Senate sub-committee Wednesday.
“Yes, most of the Earth is unpopulated and we could get lucky,” he said. “But wouldn’t it be a shame if the area of the next impact wasn’t unpopulated?”
Lu currently heads the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “protecting humanity from asteroid impacts.” The foundation plans to build and launch the Sentinel, a space-based telescope the size of a Fed-Ex moving van. It will orbit the sun and from that vantage point catalog 90% of near-Earth objects that are 140 meters or larger.
He was speaking at a hearing titled “Assessing the Risks, Impacts, and Solutions for Space Threats,” held by the Senate subcommittee on Science and Space. The senators on the committee could not resist squeezing in some “Armageddon” jokes.
“Mr. Chairman, I will confess that given the topic today, that I was disappointed Bruce Willis was not available to be a fifth witness on the panel,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas joked before the four panelists gave their five-minute presentations.
“We might get a trailer from ‘Armageddon’ and show that,” the subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson of Florida replied.
Later in the hearing, Cruz added, “There probably is no doubt that actually Hollywood has done more to focus attention on this issue than perhaps a thousand congressional hearings could do. Although I would not wish a thousand congressional hearings on anyone.”
Lu said it actually is possible for humanity to stop an asteroid from impacting Earth, but it would not involve sending a team of drillers into space.
The key is finding the asteroid early — at least 10 years before its orbit would cause it to hit our planet.
“If you change an asteroid’s speed by a millimeter per second, that’s about the speed an ant walks, and you do that 10 years or more before it is going to hit the Earth you can make it miss the Earth,” he said.
Options for changing an asteroid’s orbit include running into it with a small impact, towing it gravitationally using a small spacecraft called a gravity tractor, or, for the very larger ones you can use a nuclear standoff explosion, Lu said.
“If you don’t know where they are, there is nothing you can do,” he added, making the case for the Sentinel. “If you have less than a few years notice, you don’t have options.”
— Deborah Netburn