Today’s 112th anniversary of a close brush with a cosmic catastrophe serves as a teachable moment about the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth asteroids.
Asteroid Day is timed to commemorate a blast from space that occurred over a Siberian forest back on June 30, 1908. The explosion, thought to have been caused by the breakup of an asteroid or comet, wiped out millions of acres of trees — but because the area was so remote, the death toll was minimal.
Because of the Tunguska blast and more recent close calls, such as the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor blast, the threat from above is being taken more seriously. And although a Seattle-area asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources fizzled, experts say the idea of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids is worth taking seriously as well.
Two space missions — Japan’s Hayabusa 2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx — are in the midst of gathering samples from asteroids and returning them to Earth for analysis. Two future missions — NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, and the European Space Agency’s Hera probe — will send a projectile into a small asteroid to see what it would take to divert threatening space rocks.
When it comes to asteroid science, not every frontier is in space: A new telescope facility known as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) is taking shape in Chile, and it’s expected to identify a torrent of near-Earth asteroids after beginning science operations in 2022.
The University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute will provide some of the analytical firepower to deal with the terabytes of data due to be collected every night. And that’s not the only Seattle connection: More than a decade ago, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and software billionaire Charles Simonyi provided $30 million to rev up the federally funded project.
In recognition of Simonyi’s contribution, the Rubin Observatory’s 8.4-meter wide-field telescope has been dubbed the Simonyi Survey Telescope.
You can learn all about those missions, and get the big picture for Asteroid Day, by tuning in the Twitch stream below. (You may even see yours truly pop up occasionally as a panel moderator.)