Jovian Warning II
As America debates its future course in space policy, recent events on the solar system’s largest planet are worthy of urgent and careful reflection.
According to NASA.gov, a large object impacted with Jupiter on July 20, 2009. Scientists are not sure yet, but they think the object may have been a comet.
We’ve witnessed an event like this on Jupiter once before, a mere 15 years ago (to the day) when the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted the Jovian atmosphere.
Also on July 20, Scientific American published an intriguing story about a comet that some speculate impacted Earth’s atmosphere about 12,900 years ago, causing mass death and destruction. It is documented that our planet has been impacted in the past, and it is a virtual certainty that at some date in the future, it will be hit again, with more than small meteorites. As a reminder, a small asteroid (estimated to be a few meters in diameter) lit up the skies above northern Sudan on October 7, 2008, an event which NASA states, “occurs several times per year around the globe.”
On July 18, USA Today published a front-page article entitled, “What’s our next step?” Outlining the most favored ideas for the future of manned space flight, one of the options analyzed was traveling to an asteroid. Why? Near-Earth objects (NEO’s) threaten our world, as outlined in a prior SharedEmergency report entitled “A Priority for the New NASA Administrator.”
It is clear, human kind needs to perfect a deflection strategy that will divert, or destroy, asteroids and other threatening astronomical bodies from impacting with what the late Carl Sagan affectionately refers to as the “pale blue dot.” See Mr. Sagan’s video.
We need to be ready for collisions from objects that come our way. It is a bit unnerving that in the space of only 15 years, (not even a fraction of a blink of the eye in space time) one of our celestial neighbors has been significantly impacted at least twice…that we know of.
NASA has been working for years on the study of Near Earth Objects. See a collection of its efforts, including a report on deflecting a NEO, dated April, 2009. Further research on this topic, and international funding, is imperative, without delay. With all the talk about returning to the moon, or setting foot on Mars, much more emphasis needs to be placed on human and robotic space flight projects targeted on planetary defense systems to avert devastation.
Of the known threats, clearly none of the identified and anticipated NEO’s are certain to hit Earth anytime soon. However, the most likely invader to come uncomfortably close to us is Apophis, which will have encounters with our planet in 2029 and 2036. Variations in trajectories and warning times are certain for such objects, including Apophis. According to NASA, “additional factors can influence the predicted motion in ways that depend on rarely known details, such as the spin of the asteroid, its mass, the way it reflects and absorbs sun-light, radiates heat, and the gravitational pull of other asteroids passing nearby.” Clearly, then, the need to search for undiscovered NEO threats, and be constantly vigilant for known risks, is key.
The problem is not what we know today, but what we might suddenly discover about a newly found object tomorrow which poses a real threat to our orbital interests. We must be ready with a funded and sustainable program to react to the unanticipated on relatively short notice.
The Obama Administration is currently studying space options, with one group headed by National Security Advisor James Jones and another led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine. The Augustine group is set to issue an August report on human space flight options. Those studies will be incomplete without a thorough and detailed analysis of near-Earth object threats and what space-faring nations can do about such challenges.
We hope the Jovian events are appreciated as a warning. Perhaps the solar system is inadvertently sending us a clear message, at a time when we have the technology, to be proactive and preserve our frail home for future generations. We ignore such signs at our extreme peril as future asteroids may not be as small as the one over Sudan last year, and not all have been discovered or tracked by scientists, despite their best efforts…with limited funding.
Update: 12.30.09- The Russians are taking a possible asteroid threat seriously. See article by New York Times describing an upcoming meeting of top space researchers and their concern about 99942 Apophis, an asteroid that will come close to the planet in two decades.