As a society, we have very little in the way of preparations for an asteroid or comet that is on a collision course with Earth, a NASA scientist warned on Monday, at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
“The biggest problem, basically, is there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment,” Joseph Nuth, a researcher with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the conference.
The NASA scientist conceded that catastrophic asteroid or comet strikes are exceedingly rare, to the point that one probably won’t happen in your lifetime.
“But on the other hand they are the extinction-level events, things like dinosaur killers, they’re 50 to 60 million years apart, essentially,” Nuth said. “You could say, of course, we’re due, but it’s a random course at that point.”
Near Misses in the Past
The NASA scientist noted that we have had to relative near-misses in the past couple decades. In 1996, a comet flew into Jupiter. In 2004, a comet passed within “spitting distance of Mars,” Nuth said. Scientists discovered the latter comet just 22 months before it made its pass – which may not be enough time for us to put up a solid defense of Earth.
“If you look at the schedule for high-reliability spacecraft and launching them, it takes five years to launch a spacecraft,” Nuth said. “We had 22 months of total warning.”
NASA recently founded a planetary protection office, and Nuth has suggested the agency construct an interceptor rocket to hold in storage, with periodic evaluations, together with an observer spacecraft. Nuth argued NASA could reduce that five-year schedule by half, but that even decreasing that schedule by a quarter will still be “a Hail Mary pass” with a minimal chance of working.
Keeping a rocket on hand “could mitigate the possibility of a sneaky asteroid coming in from a place that’s hard to observe, like from the sun,” Nuth said.
Nuth emphasized that he does not speak for NASA administrators, and the mission would mandate a request to Congress for approval.