Space scientists and enthusiasts are today celebrating International Asteroid Day – with events in 190 countries and a 24-hour telethon with boffins from NASA, ESA, and JAXA plus assorted celebrities.
The date, Friday, June 30, is no accident. It was picked to commemorate the largest meteorite explosion ever recorded in human history – the 1908 Tunguska Event. Back then a suspected meteorite detonated over the Russian taiga, devastating 800 square miles of forest with an explosive power of 15 megatons, equal to the largest nuke ever detonated by the US.
Friday's telethon kicked off with British rockstar prof and former D:Ream keyboardist Brian Cox in front of the camera. The entire telethon will examine the role of these lumps of primordial debris in human affairs, and they have been very significant indeed.
You could argue that without asteroids and comets, humans might not have evolved, since it was an impact from space 65 million years ago that helped kill off the dinosaurs and spur the rise of the mammals, of which we are the product. But space rocks may have played an even more pivotal role in life on Earth.
There's a scientific theory that has grown in support over the past century dubbed panspermia, which postulates that life might have begun because the building blocks arrived in a comet or asteroid. Organics have been found on the first comet mankind has visited, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and it's possible they could survive an impact and spread.
But it's their ability to end life that has scientists worried. While most of the asteroids in the solar system are concentrated in a belt between Mars and Jupiter, there are still plenty more to go around, and some of them hit earth as they fall toward the sun.
Despite a rash of scientifically inaccurate movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact, mankind has no way of stopping an approaching asteroid even if we spotted it in time. Various schemes have been proposed, either by trying to smash one up, use lasers to nudge it out of the way, or even by firing paint at it to change its course, but none are practical.
Let's meet the team
Part of the reason for the telethon is to discuss these kinds of solutions. The schedule includes a session with NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Given the paucity of funding that the office receives, don't expect to see any hardware for a very long time indeed.
"At NASA, every day is an asteroid day, but we value the international collaboration for a designated day to call attention to the importance of detecting and tracking hazardous asteroids," said Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson.
But it won't all be doom and gloom from the scientific community. The space agencies will be showing how asteroids and comets are tracked, and will give advice for budding astronomers looking to spot and name new piles of space rubble.
Celebs will also be getting in on the game. Poodle-haired guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May will be hosting a segment and fellow musician Peter Gabriel will also be making an appearance. Space guitarist and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will be presenting and British lovey Stephen Fry is also scheduled to make an appearance to spout off about science.
The telethon fired up at 0300 UTC with the Japanese Space Agency's hosting. The European Space Agency will take over at 0830 UTC. NASA will be handed the reins at 1600 UTC and remain broadcasting for the remaining 11 hours. ®