Asteroids and Comets
All the Little Things in the Solar System, and the Things They Can Do to Earth
Is there an asteroid or comet out there that poses a risk to life on Earth? The answer is certainly "yes," but we don't yet know where the next major impactor will come from or when it will crash. The best way to reduce this uncertainty is to search the skies for these crumbs of the solar system. The Planetary Society has a long history of supporting amateur and underfunded professional astronomers in their efforts to discover and track potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. This is useful not only for planetary defense, but also for learning about the solar system's origin and evolution.
A fortuitous byproduct of our increasing ability to detect fainter objects is that, for the first time, we now stand a chance of discovering smaller, five- to ten-meter-sized rocks while they are still in space before they burn up in our atmosphere and scatter meteorites along the ground. We are now beginning to link meteorites that we can study in our labs with the data on orbits and compositions that we amass with astronomical observations. Every meteorite, every tiny asteroid has a story, and we can combine these stories together to answer fundamental questions about how the solar system formed and evolved. What were the ingredients that made Earth and the other planets? How are those constituents different now? How have asteroid and comet impacts shaped the origin and evolution of life on Earth (and, potentially, on other planets)? Can asteroids serve as stepping-stones for human travel to farther destinations?
Blogs About Asteroids, Comets, and the Impact Threat
Chiron, which is both a centaur and a comet, may also have rings.
The first results of the Rosetta mission are out in Science magazine. The publication of these papers means that the OSIRIS camera team has finally released a large quantity of closeup images of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken in August and September of last year. I explain most of them, with help from my notes from December's American Geophysical Union meeting.
Lowell Observatory's Matthew Knight addresses several points of confusion that have repeatedly come up in the coverage of Comet Lovejoy.
Asteroids, Comets, and the Threat
Scientifically, it is useful to divide the impact hazard into two types of events: those with local consequences and those with global consequences. Global events, while much less likely, actually pose a greater risk.
Fifteen years ago, Society members and passionate space advocates like you helped save the Pluto mission. Now we can do the same for missions to Europa and Mars.
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