Visualization can help the brain comprehend what words and numbers can struggle to covey. There's a YouTube video posted by "szyzyg" making the rounds right now that drives that point home. In the last few decades, our discoveries of these space rocks has increased fantastically -- but words and charts just don't convey how much we've done in very little time.
The video simulation begins in 1980, the same year the Planetary Society was founded. At that time, asteroids were considered mere debris left over from the solar system's formation -- worthless junk unworthy of much study. But the Planetary Society felt differently. Here's how I phrased our take on the subject in the January/February 2010 Planetary Report:
"They have the potential to destroy civilization, and they whiz past our planet with alarming regularity. Sometimes we see them coming, and sometimes we don't. They are generically known as near-Earth objects (NEOs), commonly called asteroids and comets, and they pose a natural threat greater than any faced by our species in history. Fortunately for us, it's a threat we can do something about.
"It's only in the last few decades that science has understood that there was a threat. In 1980, the same year the Society was founded, Luis and Walter Alvarez, with Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, published the paper that triggered a revolution in the Earth and planetary sciences by positing that the dinosaurs were killed off by the impact of a comet or asteroid.
"Barely a year and a half later, the Society funded its first NEO project -- the pioneering search of Eleanor 'Glo' Helin and Gene Shoemaker. Among their first discoveries was 1982 DB, whose near-Earth orbit makes it one of the easiest targets for spacecraft to reach (and which was renamed Nereus by Society Member Robert Cutler).
"The Society regards NEOs as both dangers and opportunities for exploration, and our programs reflect that dichotomy. In this issue, we explore the threat and what can and should be done to protect our Earth. To convince governments to act, Planetary Society Members will have to act -- something you've done many times before. The NEO threat must be addressed. We can make that happen."
Both Glo and Gene are gone now, but the search for asteroids that they pioneered, using glass photographic plates on Palomar Mountain, goes on. For 28 years, you and other Members of Planetary Society have made a crucial difference. With your support, the Gene Shoemaker NEO Grant program keeps researchers around the world watching the skies for potentially incoming asteroids and comets. You make it happen!
And thanks to Society Board Member Neil Tyson for alerting us to it via Twitter.