Earthbound Asteroids: Can A Detection System Help?

08/18/2011 08:36 AM ET

Scientists are asking if a new Earthbound detection system to spot asteroids will help us deflect a deadly impact while others are suggesting that it will only prepare us for a catastrophic event.

The Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project is a cooperative project between the United States Air Force, NASA, and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory for the systematic discovery and tracking of asteroids.

LINEAR was responsible for the majority of asteroid detections since 1998 until overtaken by the Catalina Sky Survey. As of December 31, 2007, LINEAR had detected 226,193 new objects of which at least 2019 were near-Earth collisions and 236 were comets. All of LINEAR’s discoveries were made using robotic telescopes.

Though there will be a couple of close calls, of the asteroids or comets discovered thus far by LINEAR none seem to be on a direct crash course with Earth yet. However, so many worries exist that a cosmic one which, at any given moment, is infinitesimally small doesn’t garner much attention, or government funding.

Several scientists who study asteroid hazards agree: Humankind probably won’t start readying its planetary defenses until we know the danger is real. We’ll need evidence that a large asteroid is actually headed here. So the question would remain, once detected would we have enough time?

“Human beings can solve any technical problems that are put in front of us,” said Daniel Durda, the senior planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and an expert on asteroid collisions.

“It’s the social and political issues that we struggle with.” Rusty Schweickart, former NASA astronaut and founding member of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Earth from asteroid strikes, concurred: “The geopolitical realities are daunting. The technical issues are easy by comparison.”

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