It was a typical February morning in Chelyabinsk, a large city in the shadow of Russia’s Ural Mountains. People got into their cars to drive to work through the snowy Siberian city. However, around 9:30 am, something surreal happened: a huge streak of light scorched the sky.
For a moment it even became brighter than the sun as it bloomed silently like a burning flower. But after a few seconds there was an explosion – shattering glass windows in buildings and cars and rupturing people’s eardrums. The boom was so large that the roof of a nearby zinc factory collapsed completely.
The explosion sent nearly 1,500 people to hospitals for injuries, including cuts, flash blindness and even ultraviolet burns from the light. It also damaged more than 7,200 buildings. The culprit, as researchers later discovered, was a comet about 20 meters across. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about it, aside from the damage and injuries it caused the city, was that it went largely unnoticed by astronomers and asteroid experts on the ground.
Dmitry Rogozin, the former chief of Russia’s space program, called on the international community to set up an early warning system for “objects of extraterrestrial origin.” Then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the meteor showed the “whole planet” was vulnerable to asteroids.
Throughout the chaos, one thing was clear: that the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor incident had taken the world by surprise. For a moment, the planet was caught completely flat-footed by a potentially deadly near-Earth object that injured people and damaged a city of more than 1 million people. Had it been bigger, say more than 100 meters wide, it could have wiped Chelyabinsk off the map.
Sadly, nine years later, the world is… still unprepared for a deadly asteroid.
It’s not as if no progress has been made at all, but in the grand scheme of death and destruction we can hardly imagine that we have only taken small steps. NASA launched the Planetary Defense Coordination Office in 2016 to identify and respond to any potential comet or asteroid impact that endangers Earth. It was instructed to comply with a congressional mandate to the agency issued in 2005 to identify at least 90 percent of all near-Earth asteroids that are 140 meters across or larger. NASA would complete that task by 2020. So far, it has only been able to find 10,000 such objects out of an estimated 25,000.
“We’re only about 41 percent done with what Congress has told us to,” Lindley Johnson, the PDCO officer, told The Daily Beast. NASA’s inability to find the asteroids even led to a damning 2014 inspector general report.
But things are starting to pick up. On Sept. 26 at 7:14 p.m., NASA’s DART mission successfully slammed a spacecraft into the Dimorphos asteroid about 11 million miles away — marking the first-ever test of a kinetic impact device to alter the orbit of a space rock.
The idea is that if we can push a potentially deadly asteroid just a little bit, we can move it on a path that avoids a collision course with Earth.
The PDCO also plans to launch a probe called the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor in 2026. Congress commissioned NASA in 2005.
But the fact remains that we still don’t know where nearly 60 percent of the world’s threatening, near-Earth asteroids are in the cosmos. And as we saw in the skies over Chelyabinsk in 2013, it only takes one large object to slip past our detection to cause massive destruction. That is why it is imperative that the NEO Surveyor gets started as soon as possible. “Finding them is a big part of what we do,” Johnson explains. “We can’t do anything about an asteroid unless we know if it’s coming.”
if we do managing to see one coming, the only tool in our arsenal right now are kinetic impactors like DART. While the PDCO is working on other solutions, such as a gravity tractor that can tow an asteroid using gravity, and an ion beam deflector that uses an ion engine to push the asteroid, these are still in the design phase. The latter two solutions would also require years, if not decades, in advance to move the asteroid enough that its orbit no longer poses a threat to Earth.
There is one fact that we can take comfort in: Based on our current research of near-Earth asteroids, there is no space rock as large as the ones that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago that “presented any danger to Earth.” for the foreseeable future,” said Johnson. “An extinction-level event that could wipe out the species is not something we need to worry about.”
“An extinction-level event that could wipe out the species isn’t something we need to worry about.”
— Lindley Johnson
However, he added that if an asteroid the size of Dimorphos (about 170 meters across) hit the US, it would “devastate a state-wide area”, while also throwing enough dirt and debris into the atmosphere to create “significant impact on the environment.” It would be very similar to what would happen if an atomic bomb were dropped or if a large volcano were to erupt – as has happened in the past. Smoke and dust would blanket our atmosphere, leading to an incredibly significant drop in global temperatures. This can lead to crop failures, species extinctions and catastrophic loss of life. In addition, the spot where the asteroid hit would be completely decimated.
But perhaps most disturbing is the fact that we humans don’t seem to cooperate or agree on anything, even when it comes to threats to our very existence. Look no further than how the world as a whole is responding – or rather not responding – to the growing climate crisis. This is something scientists have been warning about for decades, and we still don’t agree on basic crash barriers to keep temperatures from rising. When a deadly asteroid starts blasting its way to Earth like a cosmic bullet, why do we think we’re putting our differences aside to do something about it?
Still, Johnson is a little more optimistic about humanity’s chances.
“It’s an international effort,” he said. “No nation should do it alone, nor do they have the capabilities to do it alone if we got into the real world situation. We want to get the space agencies aligned on what is feasible in the future.”
The DART mission and everything that follows is desperately needed. Future generations will count on whatever we do today, whether it be sending ion guns to drop asteroids from the sky or identifying objects near Earth, to make them for success in the future.
Let’s hope that, unlike us today, they will learn to work together to prevent our collective demise.