Capturing Comets
February 20, 2014

Capturing Comets

Are we destined to one day go the way of the dinosaurs? I am not talking about extinction in general. No, I am talking about a mass extinction due to a massive celestial impact. Millions of years ago, almost all life on this planet was snuffed out by a massive asteroid colliding with the planet. Even today, there are countless objects out there in the galaxy that could one day repeat our planet’s history. Most asteroids are far too small to do that level of damage, but not all of them, and even small ones hold the potential for a devastating amount of destruction.

Just over one year ago, February 15, 2013, one such asteroid did make planet-fall as it exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and released more energy than a large atomic bomb. For many, this was a wake-up call to the dangers that exist out there beyond our atmosphere. Presently, NASA has been working on a new project known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that will provide some measure of protection for us against such otherworldly bombardments. The plan, as they have it, is to use a variety of newly developed tools and capabilities such as the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, as well as a new high-powered Solar Electric Propulsion system. These same components are presently being looked at for NASA’s goal of sending human astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030’s. Using these tools, the ARM’s goal is to be able to capture and redirect asteroids into a stable orbit around the moon. Thus far, there are two possible methods in which this will be accomplished. The first one includes the capture of a whole asteroid, albeit a small one, while the other involves taking a larger asteroid apart bit-by-bit, putting each of these collected pieces in the lunar orbit. In both outcomes, astronauts on board an Orion spacecraft would then be able to safely study the masses in the safety of the moon’s orbit and would be able to bring back samples to Earth for further study. Of course, the problem with this present plan is that it does not address the risk of massive, world-devastating asteroids such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs all those millions of years ago. By the time such a galactic colossus was near enough to Earth to begin the ARM, it would be too late.

In addition, this research is not cheap. Even just looking out for potential risks is costing more than 20-million dollars annually. The costs for this project could be massive, but the risk is there. Every year, more and more near-Earth objects are discovered as the number that we remain unaware of is estimated to be extraordinary large. If the ARM project could indeed protect our planet as we search for new and better ways to guarantee our survival, the costs will be well worth it.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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