Asteroids in Cold Space: To See Them, Feel the Heat

Asteroids in Cold Space : to See Them, Feel the Heat

by Todd Jackson

Here we are, days past the Mayan apocalypse and none the worse for it. Of the ways we all studied as potential means for that globe-bestriding destruction, there’s one that’s been sure to get headlines: massive near-earth asteroids. Part of the danger – for apocalypse-scenario enthusiasts, part of the fun – has always been the problem that comparatively small objects against open cold space are so hard to see. Now a private group, the B162 Foundation, is making plans to join NASA efforts to use the heat signatures the asteroids generate as they move through space as a way to spot them decades before they, as it were, spot us.

Asteroids in Cold Space : To See Them, Feel the HeatThe ascension of infrared in spotting asteroids is part of the legacy of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which operated in 2010 and 2011, taking nearly two billion images. Able to “see through” dust that obscures visible light, and able to see dark-bodied asteroids, WISE contributed profoundly to our understanding of asteroids. While its sensors weren’t as advanced or sensitive as those aboard the Spitzer Space Telescope, the European Herschel Space Observatory, or the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, WISE had the advantage of being able to take a panoptic, wide view of a great breadth of space all at once. This is much more effective for spotting NEOs than the 1%-of-sky slow crawl approach favored by most telesopes peering into deep space for very distant objects. The WISE mission suggested a population of between 3200 and 6200 asteroids larger than 100 meters. We have currently identified no more than 30% of them. We feel safe that nothing the size of a Tu is likely zeroing in on us for at least the next 40 years.

Now, a private group, the B162 Foundation, intends to build upon the principles of WISE and give us the most comprehensive view of near-Earth asteroids yet. B162 looks to launch its Sentinel space telescope aboard a SpaceX Falcon by 2018. It aspires to

catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters

The heat picked up by infrared telescopes is not like just the result of the slow effect of sunlight, but because objects moving through space generate an electrical charge. The results of the 2005 NASA Deep Impact collision into Comet Tempel 1 have further ramifications concerning the origin of comets and meteors, and indeed whether there is any distinction between them. For our purposes, what matters is that we have an enhanced ability to spot them using infrared.

As long as we have years, and particularly decades, of forewarning against any meteor impact, moving it off-course appears to be a simple, if not easy, proposition. The favored idea is to nudge it slightly off-course, using either charges or rockets. NASA is even considering capturing an asteroid in open space and placing it in a stable orbit around the Moon.

Interest in asteroids exceeds the mere threat they might pose to Earth. They also offer great stores of water and mineral wealth – though the results of Deep Impact might sober us of our expectations for finding water. Asteroids are known to contain great caches of iron, nickel, cobalt, and platinum-grade metals, as well as an abundance of other substances. These could provide raw materials for Earth, or they could provide raw materials to be used off-Earth without the great trouble of sending those materials through expensive rocket launches overcoming Earth’s massive gravity well.

Now a private space company is looking to get a toe-hold into asteroid mining and turn it into a business. Planetary Resources has ambitions for near-Earth asteroids, of which “1,500 are as easy to reach as the Moon and are in similar orbits as Earth.” The company’s first commercial product, a LEO Space Telescope that will contribute to the search for dangerous objects, but whose precision imaging system gives it a particular capacity to prospect asteroids, identifying which are most valuable.

Clearly, the window within which Earth can become seriously impacted by asteroids is narrowing. This leaves us with a wonderful range of potential planetary disasters still intacted for film-makers and nail-biters everywhere. It also leaves us with a greater understanding of the staggering wealth in natural resources than we had ever believed possible.

We will read your comment immediately so leave a remark!

RSS Guardian Express

  • NBA Playoffs Houston Rockets vs Portland Trail Blazers Preview April 19, 2014
    If star players are what NBA fans want to see in the playoffs, the upcoming series between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers is going to deliver. The two teams had four all-stars between them, and a number of other big name players. Houston edged out Portland for the four seed and home […]
    Brian Moore
  • Students Pitch Moon Colony Plan to NASA, Has Potential April 19, 2014
    On Thursday this week, a group of 40 senior students from Purdue University, presented their moon colonization plans to a very full room. Listening in were a few of NASA’s administrators, eager to collect ideas and provide feedback. Ever since scientists and aeronautics professionals have looked further into the possibility of sustaining human life outside [
    Brad Johnson
  • NBA Playoffs Dominated by Western Conference April 19, 2014
    This NBA season the Western Conference has proven to be more dominant than the Eastern Conference, as the lowest seeded playoff team in the West has a better record than the third seeded team in the East. This story has been a common theme in the NBA playoff picture for the past 15 years thanks […]
    Eric Kummel
  • Green Bay Packers Singles Can Now Find Love [Satire] April 19, 2014
    Fans of the Green Bay Packers can now find love anywhere thanks to the latest dating web site, GreenBayPackerLovers.com. Cheese head singles looking for the love of a significant other who also who is a Green Bay Packer fan finally have a place to go. Obviously this was long overdue. Of course some would argue Wisconsin is […]
    Mick Varner
  • Separatists Reject Ukraine Deal, Will Not Evacuate Government Buildings April 19, 2014
    The US, Russian, Ukraine and the European Union came to an agreement on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland to put an end to the crisis in Ukraine. The agreement  calls for the pro-Russian separatists to evacuate occupied government buildings and lay down their arms. It also calls for the interim Ukrainian government to restructure its current […]
    Nathaniel Pownell

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 626 other subscribers

Quantcast