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Tracking A Space Rock's Streak Past Earth
Originally published on Thu February 21, 2013 7:14 am
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Early this morning...
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
FLATOW: You heard it, a meteor exploded over Central Russia. It rattled buildings, shattered glass over a wide area, causing hundreds of injuries estimated at 900 or more at this hour. And at this very moment another asteroid, half the size of a football field, is speeding towards our planet. But there's no need to panic. This one is not raining space rocks, say scientists.
Scientists say it is not going to hit us, but it's going to come very close, closer than most of the satellites that circle our pale blue dot. Our planet is no stranger to close shaves or hits. Take today's meteor explosion over Russia, for one, or Meteor Crater in Arizona, and in 1908 the violent impact over Siberia flattened and scorched a remote patch of forest over 800 square miles.
Why did we not see the meteor that hit Russia? Why did we not see the asteroid headed our way until it was very close, about a year ago? And who is looking for these near-Earth asteroids, estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands? What's being done to find them before they find us?
Lots of questions. We'll be talking about that and more this hour, and we'll be tracking the path of this asteroid, 2012 DA14, as it makes its close encounter. In less than 20 minutes this space rock will be making its closest approach, coming within just 17,500 miles of the planet's surface.
So we're going to be checking in with observers around the globe to see if they can see the asteroid as it streaks past. But let me introduce my first guest. Jay Melosh is a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science at Purdue University. He joins us from West Lafayette, Indiana. Welcome to the program.
JAY MELOSH: I'm glad to be here.
FLATOW: Glad to have you. Is this an exciting time for you?
MELOSH: It is more exciting than any time I can remember. This is really something. What a coincidence.
FLATOW: Is there - of course everybody's going to ask: Is there any connection between the two?
MELOSH: Well, yeah, everybody's saying, very responsibly, no, there's no connection. And I think that is very likely right. Maybe there is, and that's something that we need to explore in the future, but we need to know a lot more about what struck Russia this morning and also do some homework back at the computers to figure out orbits and evolution of orbits.
FLATOW: Wow, so you're not ready to put these two down yet as just pure coincidence?
MELOSH: Well, there's an interesting twist here, and that twist is actually reflected in some of the observations that are going on right now of 2012 DA14. And that is a group at MIT is looking for some sign that DA14 will shed fragments. It turns out that an asteroid like that, an asteroid that's already broken up, if it makes a close enough pass to the Earth, tidal forces will become so strong that they can rip pieces off the asteroid, even rip it in half.
Now, DA14 is not coming quite that close, but it is spinning, and it wouldn't be too surprising if some fragments were shed. And one can wonder: Could this have happened, say, a century ago, during some former close pass that might have caught up with us?
FLATOW: All right, we're going to go investigate and see and go around the world to see what others might be viewing at this moment. Flora Lichtman, our correspondent and managing editor for video, is with us, and she's got a guest who's watching in Australia. Is that right?
FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: That's right, Jonathan Bradshaw has been up all night tracking DA14. He's an amateur astronomer at the Samford Valley Observatory outside of Brisbane in Australia, which is the east coast. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Jonathan.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW: Hey, thank you very much, thank you very much indeed.
LICHTMAN: So have you gotten a good look at it?
BRADSHAW: It has been a stunning night, an absolutely stunning night. It's been raining here for several days. We were all sort of teary and sad when we started tonight, and then around 11:00, the clouds parted, the skies opened, we picked up at around 19:13 and a half in the deep south and tracked it right across the sky solidly for six hours, and it has just been wonderful to track.
LICHTMAN: What does it look like? Give us a sense.
BRADSHAW: You know, when we first - when we first acquired it, it was still moving quite quick. I mean this really as dim as Pluto, just a little bit brighter. It was a very faint object. But it was really noticeable by its movement, even at the beginning of the night when it was more straight-on, when it was going really quite, relatively speaking, quite slowly.
So it just is an object which just brightens up. It's, you know, a moving pinpoint of light that got brighter and brighter and brighter until it became - it would fill the - I've got a telescope with a half-a-degree field of view, which is specially designed for tracking these sort of objects, my hobby, and it would cross that field of view in 15, 20 seconds. It was just intense.
LICHTMAN: Wow, so how do you track it if it's moving that fast?
BRADSHAW: For me it's manually. You know, I sat there looking at that monitor, tracking that beast for a long time.
BRADSHAW: There were no breaks from the computer screen.
LICHTMAN: Wow. So has the action passed? Are you soon to bed?
BRADSHAW: Yeah, I'm - well, I'm now standing outside listening to the kookaburras and witch(ph) birds singing their dawn caller at first light. The sun is not quite above the horizon yet, but it's all over for Brisbane. We're going to have to leave the next hour or so to Canberra and Perth, who are still transmitting, they've got a little bit - they're a little bit behind us in time, so they've got some darkness yet, and they're doing a fantastic job as well, I'm sure just having as much fun as I did tonight.
LICHTMAN: Well, that's actually where we're headed next. Thanks, Jonathan, for joining us today.
BRADSHAW: Not a problem.
LICHTMAN: So up next we're going to Richard Tonello, who is the owner and director of Astronomy Education Services at the Gingin Observatory in Perth, which is what you just heard about, Australia. What have you seen so far?
RICHARD TONELLO: Well, we've actually acquired DA14 at about half past 1:00 local time, and I've been tracking on it ever since. In fact I'm staring at the screen now and watching DA14 move diagonally across. And even though it's a small white point of light moving at a very fast rate, it's extremely exciting. It's very rewarding too.
LICHTMAN: Give us a sense, for people who aren't in the sort of super-astronomical geek world, how does this event rank for you on the excitement scale?
TONELLO: Well, on a scale of one to 10, one being sort of - yeah, OK - and 10 being like this is the best, this is up there. I'd say this is probably about an 8.5.
LICHTMAN: That's pretty good.
TONELLO: It's pretty good, yes. And I'm extremely grateful that all the gear is working. We've got a great bunch of people here at Gingin Observatory. I'd like to send a big thank you to Paul Woods(ph), who's our IT guru, and also to Oriel Heerie(ph), who's assisting us as well.
And we're just having an absolute blast.
FLATOW: Where is - Richard, this is Ira Flatow. Where is it at the moment?
TONELLO: At the moment it looks like, just having a quick look up, it's passing through the constellation of Crater, the Cup. So it's on its final descent stage. It's not too far away from being at its closest approach, and I can see on the screen that the actual movement of DA14 is getting faster. So it's incredible to actually watch, and it's getting brighter too.
LICHTMAN: It's actually getting faster, or it looks faster in the sky because it's coming closer?
TONELLO: It's appearing to get faster because it's getting closer.
FLATOW: Jay Melosh, is it possible as it gets closer to the Earth, and it goes inside the plane of our satellites, that it could hit some piece of, if not a satellite, some space junk? There's a lot of space junk up there, is there not?
MELOSH: There is a lot of space junk, and it wouldn't be impossible, although I haven't heard any predictions that it will hit anything large. NASA does keep track of an awful lot of space junk, and I'm sure they've already computed the orbits.
LICHTMAN: Richard, what's next for you? How long will you be tracking it tonight?
TONELLO: Well, we're going to be tracking it till approximately 4:00 Western Standard Time here in Australia. So that's still about another hour away. Unfortunately, I can't look at my watch to see what time it is. So I'm kind of in the dark. So I probably - actually, someone's just told me it's 3:15 here locally, so probably for at least another 45 minutes.
LICHTMAN: Well, thank you so much for joining us today on SCIENCE FRIDAY.
TONELLO: My pleasure, thank you for having me on.
FLATOW: And thank you very much. We have one other person that we want to go to a this point, and we're going to try to get him. He's Humberto Campins. He's at the Science Team, NASA's OSIRIS-REx Mission. He's professor of physics and astronomy, University of Central Florida in Orlando. And they're having a really big get-together out there. We're going to - but we're going to the break before we go there.
But this has created - Jay, do you think that the Russian media, right, has created more interest in this asteroid today than if it had not crashed into the Earth?
MELOSH: Oh, there's no question about that. I think everybody who even looked at the news today is up and interested, and if they haven't heard about DA14, they know about it now.
FLATOW: You know, I even saw that the congressman who's the head of the Science Space Technology Committee is suddenly calling for hearings on looking at near-Earth asteroids.
MELOSH: There have been hearings in the past, and there have been a lot of discussions in the past, but we always before today said it was a theoretical possibility, but it actually hadn't happened. There was no record of anybody being seriously injured by an asteroid burst before this, but it's all changed today.
FLATOW: And we're expecting the closest approach to come in about eight minutes, at 25 past the hour in our reckoning. How close will that be?
MELOSH: That'll be about, well, 17,200 miles above the surface of the Earth. This is close enough that you have to actually keep track of the distance between the Earth's surface and this object and the Earth's center, which is the measuring point for most of these objects.
FLATOW: Because the gravity changes as you get further away from the center, the force of gravity.
MELOSH: Well, the force of gravity does change, and as it gets closer, gravity gets a little bit stronger. But this is essentially falling in from very, very far away. So it's speeding up as it approaches closest to the Earth. It'll be moving fastest at the moment of closest approach, and then it'll be climbing out of Earth's gravity well again and slowing down a little bit.
FLATOW: Now, it's - just to set the stage of what it's doing, it's orbiting the sun, and we're orbiting the sun, and we're at a point where our orbits are intersecting. Would that be correct?
MELOSH: That's exactly right. Its orbital diameter is almost exactly the same as the diameter of the Earth. It's tilted about 10 degrees with respect to the Earth's orbit. So we only cross paths twice during the orbit, once when it's going from south to north and second when it's going from north to south. And this - it's usually not the case that the Earth is there at one of the crossing points, but we're there today.
FLATOW: And if we had been, like, 15 minutes off, it would have hit us.
MELOSH: You could say that, yes, but it's not going to hit. There will certainly be a possibility that in the future it may come around and hit us, it's one of that group of asteroids that is fated either to make a close encounter by the Earth, fly off and hit something else or end its life on our surface.
FLATOW: Jay Melosh. We'll be right back with Flora Lichtman and myself talking more about the asteroid, continuing live coverage. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow; this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. This hour, we're following along live as an asteroid named 2012 DA14, it's about 150 feet, flies past us. We're actually just minutes away from its closest approach, it's going to be in about five minutes, a little less than five minutes when it's going to be just over 17,000 miles away.
That may sound far to you, but it's actually closer than most satellites. My guest is Jay Melosh, he's distinguished professor in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University. Flora Lichtman is here with me, and we're following people who are watching. Flora, who have we got next?
LICHTMAN: Next we have Humberto Campins. He's part of the Science Team at NASA's OSIRIS-REx Mission and a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Humberto.
HUMBERTO CAMPINS: I'm delighted to be here. I'm live. We have a live panel going on. So I'm actually disturbing, a little bit, the crowd. And according to our calculations, the closest approach will happen in another 40 seconds. So you may hear a cheer inside the room. We have about 800 people in the auditorium, and if you hear a cheer, it is because it will having its closest approach, and it will start moving away from us.
FLATOW: So this is a watch party at the University of Central Florida?
CAMPINS: That is correct. We have a live feed from Australia, and we have four speakers that are discussing this with the public and the press.
LICHTMAN: This is a little bit earlier than the predicted closest approach.
CAMPINS: Well, according to our calculation, it's going to happen in another 10 seconds.
LICHTMAN: OK, so we're counting down right as we speak. What does it look like on your screen?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Five, four, three...
CAMPINS: You can hear them.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Two, one.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
CAMPINS: The asteroid is now moving away from us. Are you guys there?
FLATOW: Wow, that was exciting. That was like New Year's Eve in Times Square.
CAMPINS: Yeah, we've got 800 very relieved people here.
FLATOW: Well, still it's moving away, and it did not hit us. It didn't hit anything else that we know of.
CAMPINS: Not... We haven't gotten any reports of any (unintelligible) with any of the communication satellites.
LICHTMAN: How has the live stream held up?
CAMPINS: Quite well. We seem to have clear weather and a very good connection with Australia. It's going to be dawn in Australia soon, but we were very forutnate to get the live stream until now.
FLATOW: And when do we expect to see it return again?
CAMPINS: In another 30 years or so.
FLATOW: And will it be coming as close then as it is now?
CAMPINS: No, it will not. I won't come as close as this time. But remember, the Earth is going to be perturbing its orbit rather dramatically. So we don't know exactly what its orbit will be like until after we've, you know, been able to track it a little further. And it depends on a number of things, including the shape of the asteroid and its rotation, and a number of things that are going to be - for example the Earth could be breaking it up into pieces because of the tidal forces.
We don't know any of that yet. But we estimate that it'll come back, but not come back as close as this time.
LICHTMAN: I just want to give a shout out to our website, sciencefriday.com/asteroidwatch, where we have a feed and lots of information about DA14. Dr. Campins, you're also part of the OSIRIS-REx Mission. What's that about?
CAMPINS: I've just stepped out of the room wher ehte panel is going on so that I don't disturb them. The OSIRIS-REx Mission is funded by NASA, it's being built right now. We'll be launching in 2016. It'll get to the asteroid in 2018, spend about a year and a half mapping it. In 2019, it will sample and send this capsule back to Earth, which will arrive in 2023. This mission is being led by the University of Arizona, and I'm part of the science team.
The science team is composed mostly of U.S. scientists, but we also have a significant participation with European and Canadian scientists.
LICHTMAN: So this is an asteroid scraping mission. But you're not going to this asteroid, right?
CAMPINS: No, this asteroid got discovered only a year ago. 1999 RQ36 we have studied for a number of years, and we have decided that that is the best target for our mission.
FLATOW: What could you learn from this asteroid, now that it has come by and gone by?
CAMPINS: Well, we hope to learn about its shape, its internal structure, hopefully a little bit about its composition. And also that should help us prepare for what we will encounter at the asteroid 1999 RQ36 when we get there in 2018.
LICHTMAN: Thank you, Dr. Campins, for joining us today and for leaving your watch party. We appreciate it.
CAMPINS: Yeah, and I can stay online if you need me to, or if you want I can end the call. It's your choice.
LICHTMAN: Great, well, maybe we'll check back in with you later.
FLATOW: Thank you very much.
LICHTMAN: Thanks, Dr. Campins.
CAMPINS: My pleasure.
LICHTMAN: Humberto Campins is a member of NASA's OSIRIS-REx science team and a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Central Florida.
FLATOW: Jay, a lot of excitement, huh?
MELOSH: It's great, yes.
FLATOW: I mean, do you wish you were there counting down with them? It was like New Year's Eve, was it not?
MELOSH: Absolutely. I wish we had thought of that.
MELOSH: It sounds like a fun party.
FLATOW: Let's - let me - I want to bring in Eric Anderson now. He is co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, Incorporated, and chairman of Space Adventures, joining us by phone from Miami. And he is in the asteroid mining business now, right, Eric?
ERIC ANDERSON: Yes, that's true.
FLATOW: You - what is the idea? Can you actually go to an asteroid and mine it and bring stuff back?
ANDERSON: Well, that is absolutely our plan. Of course it is possible. There is no law of physics that prevents that. In fact, it's already been done. We've been mining asteroids for hundreds of years, in a sense, because the deposits that are left by asteroid impacts are actually the source of our platinum mines on Earth.
And even to go to an asteroid and bring material back, that was actually done by the Japanese HAYABUSA Mission a few years ago. The real question is economics. And that's what we're attempting to overcome.
FLATOW: What kind of stuff is on the asteroid that you'd like?
ANDERSON: Well, the first thing we would do, and you can read all about this at planetaryresources.com, but would be to go to the asteroids that have volatiles on them, for example water, elements that include carbon and nitrogen, things like methane for example, and to basically turn those materials into fuel and set up, for lack of a better word, gas stations in orbit, in space.
And that will enable not only much reduced cost of deep space exploration for humans, refueling of satellites, things like that, but it will also enable us to bring the materials - the other materials on the asteroid - to a location wherever we want, whether it's the Earth, the moon, Mars, whatever.
And so at that point we would then look to the much heavier metals, in some cases very rare metals, such as the platinum group metals: iridium, osmium, rhodium, et cetera; or more industrial metals such as nickel, cobalt, iron and the like.
FLATOW: How far away - let's talk about the asteroid that came by today. Could you have jumped on that and what would you do with it? Would you mine it as it went by? How far away would you go?
ANDERSON: Well, the asteroid that came by today is too - it actually is going quite fast relative to the Earth. So it would be too hard and too much energy required to go to it and then bring materials back from it. So we actually are seeking, as resource targets, asteroids that have a much lower velocity difference from the Earth's velocity around the sun.
You'd think of the asteroids that would be great for planetary resources would the ones that are orbiting the sun, co-orbital with the Earth. So just sort of around us as they orbit the sun, as well, because then the relative difference in velocity would be quite small.
FLATOW: Are there any precious metals like gold on these asteroids?
ANDERSON: There is, and of course the most precious metals that occur on the asteroids are the platinum group metals, as I mentioned, and really all of the platinum group metals are there.
Platinum group metals, incidentally, do not occur naturally in the Earth's surface, and it's really not a joke what I said before, that the only way we can get platinum on Earth is through these impact sites of, you know, could it be millions or tens of millions of years ago. But platinum group metals, on average, are basically, you know, $1,600 an ounce or more. I mean, some of them are 10 times that.
And they're just extremely rare. The good news is that they are also extremely valuable for industrial processes. So if we're - you know, one of the negatives some people bring up about asteroid mining is they say, well, that's great, if you bring all this material back, you'll crash the price.
You know, my answer is, well, I can only hope that we bring the price down by a factor of 10 because their usage will go up by a factor of 100. And we're totally fine with creating a world of abundance like that. But yeah, that's our plan.
FLATOW: All right, Eric, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you. Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, Incorporated, and chairman of Space Adventures, Limited. Of course, we are following the close encounter of the asteroid that went by today, and as we hear it, Flora, it's on its way away now, right?
LICHTMAN: That's what it certainly sounds like.
FLATOW: And you have online - is Humberto still with us?
LICHTMAN: I think Humberto is still with us. Humberto, what's the crowd doing now?
CAMPINS: The crowd is very excited still. We're getting lots of questions from them to the panel. The panel is minus one member, me, but that's fine.
CAMPINS: The other people are handling the questions just fine.
LICHTMAN: What are people curious about? What are people wondering about?
CAMPINS: They've been wondering about the composition of this asteroid, which we know very little about. They've been wondering about the effect of the Earth on it, and they've been wondering about the relationship between this asteroid and what happened in Russia yesterday. And we think that there's none, except that, you know, what happened in Russia yesterday was just another one of these pieces of space debris that the Earth sees every day. They've been asking about the plans for the B612 Foundation to put this telescope inside of the Earth's orbit to discover more asteroids.
So - and they've been also talking about how to deflect an asteroid if one is going to be threatening Earth. So to that effect, we have Mike A'Hearn, who was the principal investigator of the deep impact mission, telling us about how to deflect those asteroids and comets.
FLATOW: All right, Humberto, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Again, good luck to you.
CAMPINS: It's been my pleasure and the pleasure of all of us participating here.
FLATOW: Humberto Campins is the science team, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission and professor of physics and astronomy, University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. We've been listening to - you've been listening to live coverage of the passage of this asteroid that's come by, well, once in our - once in a lifetime and once in many lifetimes. Sitting with us is our buddy Jay Melosh, distinguished professor, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in Purdue University in West Lafayette. Jay, where do people go from here? I mean how do you top this thing?
MELOSH: I can't think of a good way to...
MELOSH: ...top it anytime soon. This is, you know, one heck of a coincidence that's occurred today, if it's coincidence. Where we're going I think with the Russian meteor, we need to know a lot more about it. It's really early times - I was part of the, you know, on the receiving end of the Carancas meteorite which struck Peru. I think it was 2007. I should remember the year better. But there was a media storm, but what happened is that a lot of very confused stories came out about, you know, green rocks floating around, and people getting sick and so on.
I think that when a big event like that happens, there's a lot of confused information that comes out. The news from Russia seems to be a lot more controlled than that, but we still need to know a lot more. We don't know how big this object was. The damage doesn't seem consistent with the initial report that it was a 10-ton object.
FLATOW: Well, there's a new report that came in about half an hour ago that said it was about a quarter of the size of this asteroid 2012 DA14. So they've upped the size of this meteor.
MELOSH: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. We've been running some simulations this morning on that as well. And, you know, a 10-meter iron object coming in a little faster than average would do about that kind of damage. But again, exactly how widespread the damage was, what altitude it broke up at, all those things are important factors. And the reports I've seen are very conflicting on that.
FLATOW: Yeah. They say it's 15 meters in diameter, mass of 7,000 tons. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
MELOSH: OK. That's good.
FLATOW: Pretty big, huh? I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the asteroid that passed us today and about the meteor that - I guess it's a meteorite if it touches ground - in central Russia. I want to bring on Alison Gibbings. Alison Gibbings, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
ALISON GIBBINGS: Thank you. Great to be here.
FLATOW: You have an idea of how to deflect an asteroid. Tell us about that.
GIBBINGS: Oh, yeah. I mean at the University of Strathclyde and the advanced concept team, we're developing technologies and approaches to (unintelligible) asteroids. This ranges from ablation where you use an intense laser beam to sublimate the surface of the asteroid, (unintelligible) that pushes against the asteroid for deflection; (unintelligible) approaches where you (unintelligible) surface spacecraft or even a nuclear warhead towards the asteroid (unintelligible) distraction. We've also recently supposed a concept called smart cloud that provides deflection through the release of a high-velocity dense cloud of low-mass small-sized particles, and...
FLATOW: So you send a rocket out to it, and you release a cloud of small particles around it?
GIBBINGS: Yes. We would use another spacecraft that would approach the asteroid on a collision course, and this would release a dense cloud of small-sized particles, of millions and millions of (unintelligible) spacecraft on (unintelligible) chip substructures. And each chip set is passively operated and able to provide local (unintelligible) maneuvering. And together, that would impact the asteroid (unintelligible) big cloud, and that would impart momentum to deflect the asteroid.
FLATOW: How far away, and how many years away or far away would you have to discover this asteroid before you could do this?
GIBBINGS: Sure. I mean at the moment we're using a model based on an asteroid that is eight and a half, nine years in advance. And it is a long-duration mission because, obviously, you have to fly to the asteroid, rendezvous there, and then release this cloud. And the cloud itself will be very, very dense with lots and lots of small particles. At the moment, we're working on simulations where the cloud (unintelligible) 626.5(pn) million particles.
GIBBINGS: Each particle is 7.5 milligrams each, and that's developed from work being created in Cornell University. And the reason it's beneficial is because it provides lots of little impacts of momentum, which is below the deflection limit of asteroids. You don't get any risk of...
FLATOW: No risk, yeah.
GIBBINGS: ...fragmentation, unwanted fragmentation. You know, you don't want your asteroids break up into multiple sections.
FLATOW: Not like they do it in the movies. Another idea...
FLATOW: Another idea you've been looking at is shooting lasers at the asteroid. How does that work?
GIBBINGS: Yes. And so what we would do, we would gain and reduces a small (unintelligible). And one day, we'll give the approaching asteroids. And then, we would either use a multiple laser beams or one laser beam, given the size and the composition of the asteroid, to sublimate the surface. And we're using the laser beam and then lasing(ph) on the surface and super heating the (unintelligible) in it's top form, the surface of the asteroid, directly from a solid to a gas and create a large fume of ejector, only a gaseous, much like a rocket exhaust in the standard methods of rocket propulsion. And this clear, big fueled-room(ph) reactor, which push against the asteroid. And slowly nudge it away. Again, similar to the smart cloud, it is a long duration of laser-glass(ph) method. So we'd need to know the asteroid's it's going to deflect kind of years in advance.
FLATOW: Years in advance.
GIBBINGS: So five, 10, 20 years in advance.
FLATOW: Wow. Well...
GIBBINGS: It's a very kind of gradual approach deflection.
FLATOW: Doctor Gibbings, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you.
GIBBINGS: Thank you.
FLATOW: Alison Gibbings, Advanced Space Concepts Lab, at University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, U.K. We're going to come back and talk more about this asteroid and talk with Edward Lu. We'll talk about the hunting for asteroids, how we can see them a lot further out. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're covering live this hour an asteroid that's flying pass the Earth today. Asteroid 2012 DA14 made its closest approach, just - I'm going to say about - between 15, 16, 17 minutes ago. Its schedule was off because they really didn't know how - to the last minute, how close it was going to get, at what time. And we're following along here. You can follow our live feed at @sciencefriday.com/asteroidwatch. And we have been going around the world, with people, looking at it. Flora Lichtman is here with us, helping with coverage. Flora, where we're going next?
LICHTMAN: We're headed to Italia, next, to Gianluca Masi, who's from the Bellatrix Observatory in Ceccano, Italy. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Gianluca.
GIANLUCA MASI: Hi. It's a pleasure for me. And good afternoon to all your friends, listening to your radio.
LICHTMAN: Thank you. Have you had any luck tracking the asteroid?
MASI: Well, in - tonight, we have been waiting for this asteroid, crossing the sky, from months. But right now, we have clouds in the sky. So at the moment, it is impossible for us to spy this asteroid, and it should be above the horizon, of course. Obviously, this already - it's already approached the (unintelligible) eastern. But, unfortunately, the clouds are even closer, and they are covering the objects right now. But I hope that - to see it in the evening, the sky will open. I see stars somewhere in the sky, but not in the right place, so still waiting.
LICHTMAN: Do you pre-program your tracking device - can you pre-program the path that your telescope tracks, or when the clouds clear, how are you going to know where exactly to look?
MASI: Yes, yes. I must say that we fined-tune the telescope to track the asteroid. Where the telescope knows, very well, where the asteroid is. Actually, it's already pointed in the right place. So we are just waiting. And the telescope has a very nice tracking routine running, so we are just - that our telescope would be able to track this difficult part, because you know, it is passing so close that it is moving, apparently, very fast in the sky. And I must say that (unintelligible) telescopes are able to track it (unintelligible). So we are hoping, really.
FLATOW: So - this is Ira Flatow here. How disappointed are you now, that you haven't seen it?
MASI: That - you mean that condition in the sky?
FLATOW: Yes. How disappointed are you that you have not seen it and that it's cloudy out? I'm sure you must have been looking forward to this.
MASI: Yes, yes. We have been looking to this over the last six months. And I must say that we have, really, thousands and thousands of people waiting for our images, because we are running a live broadcasting on our website. But at the moment, as I say, that we are not showing the asteroid. You know, this is Mother Nature. You can really plan things for years and arrive the exact night, something, cannot cooperate with you. So you have to be really, really patient and wait sometimes, and this is what we're doing.
LICHTMAN: Well, good luck to you, Gianluca.
MASI: Thank you very much. And we'll be in touch if we will have something new. Thank you so much.
LICHTMAN: That sounds great. Thank you. Gianluca Masi is from the Bellatrix Observatory in Ceccano.
FLATOW: How much disappointment, Flora, that must be for all those thousands of people.
LICHTMAN: I can't even imagine, months at least in the making...
FLATOW: Months and...
LICHTMAN: ...this event.
FLATOW: Yeah. You know, at least with a full solar eclipse, you can wait for another one every few years but...
LICHTMAN: Don't know when this will happen again.
FLATOW: Jay - yeah. Jay Melosh, a distinguish professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University, can you feel what he's feeling at the moment?
MELOSH: I can feel what he's feeling. I've also sat my time at a telescope, hoping to see something and not seeing it become - because of clouds. Although, this one is a much more unusual event.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm going to bring in now Edward Lu, former NASA astronaut, chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation in Palo Alto, California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
EDWARD LU: Hello. It's an honor to be on.
FLATOW: Thank you. What is B612 all about?
LU: Well, B612 is a nonprofit foundation that is going to build and operate a space telescope to find these asteroids before - essentially, before they find us. What we're doing is re-launching a space telescope, an infrared space telescope in 2018. It's going to track the million or so asteroids in our solar system that threaten Earth and will give Earth decades of warning so that we don't end up in a situation like this, where, you know, you just have a year's warning, and there's nothing you can do. Because it turns out, with a decade's warning, deflecting asteroids is actually relatively straightforward. We can do that.
FLATOW: Yeah. And how are we going to pay for that?
LU: We are raising it philanthropically. We announced our plans just about seven months ago, and it's been going very well. It turns out that there are people who feel a moral urgency to protect our civilization. You know, every civilization is the last - they're the caretaker of all civilization up until that point, right? And there are people who feel like, hey, maybe it's worth it to spend, you know, an amount of money that's roughly equivalent to building a wing of an art museum, instead to give the Earth early warning of the next asteroid impact.
FLATOW: And so you put a satellite into orbit that will look out...
LU: Around the sun. Yeah.
FLATOW: Around the sun.
LU: Orbiting around the sun. Yeah. We're launching mid-2018, July of 2018, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Our space telescope is about 24 feet tall. It's about 2,260 pounds. It is a 50-centimeter optics, focal length - excuse me, 50-centimeter diameter main mirror with a infrared, heat-sensing imager. And from its position - well, it's going to end up orbiting the sun near Venus and looking outwards.
FLATOW: So how many asteroids can you see once - or when - is it going to sweep around? How many asteroids in each sweep will it make?
LU: What is that - it is actually going to sweep around. But it will - the better way to think about this is that we'll discover, on average, about 10,000 new asteroids each month. So let's put that in perspective. All other telescopes that we've ever built, combined over the last 30 years, have discovered about 10,000. So we'll do that every, you know, every few weeks. So it will be, you know, roughly 100 times more effective than all other telescopes combined. It's going to basically do the job we need to do in order to give our society the warning we need, such that we can easily deflect an asteroid.
FLATOW: And how much warning would that be? And how would we - if we had the warning, what would we use to deflect it?
LU: Well, you need - you basically need decades of warning. And that's because you need decades in order to get something out - you need, generally, years in order to get something out to where you're - to where an asteroid happens to be, right? You don't get to choose the spot where it is. So you need a good launch opportunity. And then you need time for whatever you do to take effect.
So consider - these things are going around the sun, just like the Earth is going around the sun. And what we're talking about is finding them, you know, 30, 40, 50 orbits around the sun before they hit the Earth. And that means you only need to change their velocity by a tiny, tiny, tiny amount, something like a millimeter per second. So if you look down on the ground and see an ant walking, that's about the speed change you need to give to an asteroid to make it miss, if you do it that far in advance.
FLATOW: Well, I would think that since everybody - we saw the meteorites - the meteor that struck Russia today and a close passage of this asteroid today, I would think every nation would be interested in chipping in on a project like this.
LU: Well, you know, nations sometimes don't do things so quickly or, you know, when there isn't sort of money in somebody's district, or something like that. Sometimes those things don't happen so quickly. So we at B612 Foundation realize that, hey, we could, you know, try and get the governments to do the right thing. We can try and get them to think about things off in the future. We can try and get them to understand probabilities, and so on. Or we could just do it.
And we took the second tax. We are a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley, and we realized that there were enough people who could sit down and think about this for a little while and who would appreciate that, you know, that the simple sound bite is - you know, they have the patience to listen through more than just the sound bite, and that they realized, hey, this really is important. And, you know, so that's how we decide to do it. We built - we put together what's essentially the world's finest spacecraft team. And we are actually - and NASA is actually a junior partner. They're actually helping us, but we're doing it ourselves, essentially.
FLATOW: Where does the name B612 come from?
LU: It comes from the home of the Little Prince, from the famous book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince lived on an asteroid called B612.
FLATOW: Very simple, something everybody's read, something everybody can relate to. So how much money do you need to raise?
LU: We need to raise about $37 million per year for the next 12 years. And, well, we just got started, like I said, a few months ago, but it's going quite well. We've already passed our first major technical review. We've been already building hardware, and the facility where it's - the spacecraft is being built is - just opened up in Boulder, Colorado.
FLATOW: Wow, well, good...
LU: It's at Ball Aerospace.
FLATOW: Jay Melosh, good idea?
MELOSH: It sounds like a great idea. I've been on various NASA and NRC panels that discussed doing just that. But NASA has not been moved itself to start an exercise like that. So it's great to hear that a private group has taken that as their own task.
FLATOW: All right. I want to thank both of you, and I wish you good luck, Edward Lu, for your project, and we'll be following it over the years.
LU: Thank you very much. Yeah. And, you know, we just want to let people know that there's - they can actually get involved in making this happen. We don't have to sit by and watch and be a, in some sense, a spectator to the next one that hits us. We can do something about it.
FLATOW: How can they participate?
LU: They can go to b612foundation.org and sign up for updates. They can learn more about asteroids. They can see - and actually, pretty interesting, three-dimensional dynamic map of all the known asteroids in our solar system. It's actually kind of frightening, if you look at it.
FLATOW: Yes, I saw it. It is frightening, but - what is out there.
LU: But you don't realize that the asteroids that we see are only 1 percent of what's really out there, because our ground-based telescopes have only been able to find 1 percent of what's out there.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, there was a lesson today in central Russia about what's out there.
FLATOW: Thank you, Edward Lu, former NASA astronaut, chairman and CEO of B612. Jay Melosh, thank you for taking the time to sit with us through the whole hour today.
MELOSH: It's been fun.
FLATOW: Thank you. Jay is a distinguished professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.