We were shocked to read on Discover magazine’s website last week that an asteroid 450 feet across, lurking just now on the other side of the sun, stands a (remote) chance of smacking us — or someone else on earth — in about 29 years. Scientists presently judge the probability to be around 1 in 625, which seems like a substantial upgrade from the usual estimate of a one in 5,000 chance that a major asteroid will hit Earth in the next century.
More will be known next year, after new calculations, and everything hinges on the asteroid — with the mild name of AG5 — passing through what astronomers are calling a space “keyhole” that could bend its orbit toward earth sometime in 2023. So there will be some time to prepare. But frankly we can see the opportunity for some defense industry contracts right now, and it’s not hard to pick out a front-runner.
With uncanny foresight, some scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory prepared a video that was uploaded to YouTube in the middle of last month extolling how their newest Cray supercomputer can model the impact of an “energy source” on an asteroid. Robert P. Weaver, identified only as an R&D scientist at the New Mexico lab, narrates how the shock wave from a one-megaton-sized explosion — he never mentions the “n” word, for the nuclear weapons at the heart of the lab’s work — would blast a much larger asteroid into smaller bits of rock.
There’s no discussion about the consequences of creating so much debris in space, where the clutter is already threatening satellites and the space station. But it’s good to know we might not be defenseless. NASA has actually studied what’s engagingly called “planetary defense,” but so far it has deflected, so to speak, a call from former astronaut Rusty Schweickart to begin a special study of the threat of attack by the rock known as AG5.