Oct 16, 2013 - Claremont, Calif. -
Schweickart presented senior Joshua Edelman a symbolic, over-sized check—representing the $10,000 scholarship the engineering major received from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation—during a public ceremony in the College’s new Shanahan Center Auditorium. Edelman was one of 28 students nationwide this year to receive the prestigious award.
Following the scholarship presentation, Schweickart shifted into a talk about near-Earth objects, including the asteroid that struck above Chelyabinsk, Russia last February. That asteroid, considered small at a diameter of about 60 feet, created a shockwave that damaged 7,200 buildings, injured 1,500 people and resulted in $33 million in damages.
“We did not see that one coming nor could we have seen it coming, because it was within 15 degrees of the rising sun,” said Schweickart.
Yet technology is available to map and model potential future collisions—many of them decades to a hundred years in advance. Such early detection is the key to deflecting an asteroid.
Using a diagram that showed two intersecting circles—one representing the Chelyabinsk asteroid’s orbit and the other the Earth’s— Schweickart compared the intersecting points to a traffic intersection. When an asteroid enters the intersection at the same time as our planet, a collision occurs.
“All you need to do is change the asteroid’s velocity by about one ten-thousandth of a mile an hour. Then, 10 or 15 years later, when it was going to meet the Earth in the intersection, the Earth will have gotten through before the asteroid gets there or will pass through after it,” he said.
Changing an asteroid’s speed takes a two-step process: first you hit it with a satellite or other large object and then you make fine adjustments with a gravity tractor, which pulls the asteroid using mutual gravity as a “tow-rope.”
In theory, the process would deflect an asteroid collision without any harmful effects, making it preferable to blowing up an asteroid above the Earth, which would result in a shockwave similar to—or more destructive than—the Chelyabinsk event.
Schweickart emphasized that planetary defense is a global issue and every country has the responsibility to put resources toward addressing the reality of a future planet-threatening asteroid collision. Because deflecting an asteroid carries risks and potential political conflicts—such as which countries may be in the path you decide to shift the gigantic space rock along—it also requires a central command.
With that in mind, the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at protecting the planet from dangerous asteroids, has submitted recommendations to the United Nations that are expected to be adopted this month by the U.N. General Assembly.
Schweickart cofounded the B612 Foundation with fellow astronaut Ed Lu and serves as chair emeritus of its board of directors. The organization plans to build, launch and operate the world’s first privately funded deep space telescope to create a dynamic map of the inner solar system, identifying the current and future locations and trajectories of Earth-crossing asteroids.
Media Contact: Judy Augsburger