Why Asteroids Matter


This Sunday might mark a first in human history.   Japan’s Hayabusa probe will be re-entering the earth’s atmosphere to touch-down in Australia.    Hayabusa is returning from its visit to an asteroid  (25143 Itokawa, which it visited in 2005).  This, in and of itself, isn’t all that special.   Probes have been to asteroids before.    What’s different about this one is that the probe was supposed to have taken a sample of asteroid material, and if it was successful in doing so, we’ll have some actual bits of asteroid to study.    (We have others already, but they hit the earth, and so their chemistry has been altered as a result of their fiery plunge through such a dense atmosphere as the Earth’s.

So why should you care?  

For starters, Asteroids are believed to be remnants of the early solar system.  More or less pristine samples of the materials that were there to build the planets.   Ultimately, their study will reveal clues to the origins of our solar system, and by extension, us.

Understanding Us.  We don’t know, really, how life gets started.   Asteroids may just hold some of the keys to that mystery.   Just how did the first life forms arise from nonorganic material?   We’ve found evidence of water and oxygen on other asteroids, but their chemical compositions are rather primitive, when compared to the Earth.   It is believed that asteroids may give us insight into the early Earth, upon which the first known life arose.  Thus we stand to learn something about how life got started here at home.

More importantly, as Earth’s natural resources dwindle, we will be looking to the stars to find alternatives.   Asteroids will no doubt be mined in our future.   We’ll need to know as much about them as we can, to determine where to go mining, and how to go about mining them.

Earth is buzzed by asteroids on a regular basis.   Often, the near-hitters are detected after they’ve flown past us… sometimes we find out they flew past us, undetected, underneath our own satellites.    Of all natural disasters that humanity can face, Asteroid collision is the only one within our current technological means to thwart.    But we haven’t tried it yet.   We, again, need to know as much about them as we can, to be effective in doing something about them when they’re on a collision course.    Asteroid Apophis will be making a very near-miss on the Earth in 2036.   Exactly what its close encounter will do to its orbital trajectory remains unknown, but it could potentially put it on a collision course with us on its next swing past.   Its bigger than two football fields, so that will cause some serious regional damage should it hit.  

According to the Obama Space plan, American astronauts will be visiting one in person.   One such reason for undertaking such a mission would be to test the techniques and technologies that would be needed to pull an Armageddon and save the planet from a nasty impact.    Of course, just getting there is a first for humanity, and a major milestone in human achievement.   Touching down on an object like an asteroid is very different from, say, the moon.  For one, asteroids have negligible gravity compared to planetary bodies.     If we can manage to alter its path, even slightly, we’ll have proven to ourselves that we really can make better decisions than, say, the dinosaurs.

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