Monday, April 11, 2005

Earth-Crossing Asteroids: Threat or Resource?

This Washington Post story is about asteroid hunters, astronomers who scan the sky for objects that could hit the Earth. The astronomers are mapping the skies under a government-funded program.

It's a worthy project but the reality is that if astronomers were to discover a planet-killer asteroid heading to Earth there is little or nothing we could do to stop it. Our spacefaring capability is too primitive.

The story is interesting because of how it views Earth-crossing space bodies. They are viewed exclusively as potential dangers to Earth that must be mapped. This is pretty much the beginning and end of mainstream opinion on asteroids. Is there a danger that one will collide with the Earth and send us to the same extinct species list the dinosaurs are on?

But there could be a benefit to comets and asteroids that come near the Earth. Exploitation.

San Diego's own space company, SpaceDev, has long wanted to send a private mission to a nearby asteroid. Called NEAP, the project has evolved into a mission to land a small craft on an asteroid carrying various engineering, science, and entertainment payloads. But as originally conceived the plan was to use the landing as a test case to make a legal claim to the asteroid.

Such a mission is not beyond our capabilities at the moment. What seem to be beyond our present capabilities are missions to mine the asteroids. Once we develop that capability the maps the asteroid hunters are plotting now might be used someday, not to protect the Earth from collision, but by prospectors looking to make a buck mining an asteroid.


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