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Surprise asteroid impact is wake-up call

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Feb 16, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—As astronomers were waiting to witness the closest ever predicted pass of a large asteroid, 2012 DA14, yesterday, another asteroid sneaked in under the radar and hit the Earth full on.

This unrelated space rock's arrival was pure coincidence. And chillingly we had no warning because it arrived in a daylight sky so that it was difficult to find in advance.

YouTube was full of dramatic videos of the fireball which exploded with the force of a small nuclear bomb and left a dramatic vapour trail in the sky over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia. The trail was even recorded by Eumetsat's Meteosat-10 geostationary satellite in space.

Unfortunately nearly 1,000 people suffered injuries, mainly due to cuts from broken glass, after an explosive shockwave from the fireball arrived, shattering windows and damaging buildings while they were watching the spectacle.

Meteorites are thought to have landed in a frozen lake in the southern Ural mountains. It is thought to be the biggest impact since 1908 when an asteroid or small comet exploded over a happily uninhabited region of Siberia called Tunguska, flattening the forest for thousands of square kilometers.

Both the new private space mining companies were quick to warn that the two asteroid encounters showed that the world had to wake up and take the threat of asteroid impacts seriously.

Rick Tumlinson, chairman of Deep Space Industries, said: “The hundreds of people injured in northern Russia show it’s time to take action and no longer be passive about these threats.”

He is proposing first setting up a sentry line of small spacecraft around the Earth to intercept and evaluate potential threats.

David Gump, CEO of Deep Space Industries, said: “Placing ten of our small FireFly spacecraft into position to intercept close encounters would take four years and less than $100 million. This will help the world develop the understanding needed to block later threats.”

Mining rivals Planetary Resources are keen to use their the Arkyd-100 Series space telescopes to find rogue asteroids which could later be deflected by other spacecraft.

President Chis Lewicki said of yesterday's impact: "Despite considerable progress in asteroid detection, only about one in ten close-approaching asteroids are known about ahead of time. While not every approaching asteroid may be detected, and with little warning not all can be prevented, in this case a little warning would have prevented many injuries, and quelled the panic that followed.

"Today's events, both with 2012 DA14 and the Russian meteorite, are a reminder that our Solar System is a crowded place. Today was unnerving indeed, and scary and unfortunate for those near Chelyabinsk. We don’t know when the next one of these might appear, but we’re working to see it coming!"

Meanwhile, two California scientists have come up with a daring new answer to the problem. They are suggesting developing an orbital defence system called DE-STAR that would tackle dangerous asteroids by vaporising them with laser beams.

DE-STARR asteroid defence

A crude represntation of the California teams design for DE-STARR. Credit: Philip M. Lubin

Professors Philip M. Lubin and Gary B. Hughes say they would harness the power of the Sun to create an array of beams that could eliminate an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14 in an hour. They could alternatively deflect their orbits, sending them safely away from us or into the Sun.

Lubin said: "We need to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with threats. Duck and cover is not an option. We can actually do something about it and it's credible to do something. So let's begin along this path."