“Science is too important not to be part of popular culture” - Professor Brian Cox
Quite, Brian. Last Friday, space decided to threaten us all with a giant world-ending rock passing perilously close to Earth (as covered in a previous WTF?), only to hit Russia with a couple of completely unexpected meteorites instead, injuring 1,100 people. Science is just for geeks? Try telling that to the people driving to work only to see a white hot ball of fiery death coming down on them.
By now you’re bound to have seen the spectacularly terrifying videos from Russia, but in case you haven’t, here’s an awesome display of just how terrifying space can be when it decides to stop being all ‘outer’. We were going to include it in last week’s WTF but didn’t because a) we ran out of time and b) we were all hiding under our desks in sheer terror.
Asteroids and meteorites have long been the source of cosmic terror, with the odd article cropping up in tabloid newspapers every now and again threatening of some far off doombringer that might hit Earth, but, by and large, the threat of giant space rocks ploughing into your home has been underplayed. We can just send Bruce Willis up with a nuclear bomb, can’t we? Or put up a big laser shield? Didn’t George Bush include asteroids in the Axis of Evil?
Reassuringly, as Friday’s events illustrated, the answer to all three is no (well, a nuke would work, provided it was someone who knew what they were doing handling the operation rather than Bruce Willis. Although it would save us from any more bad Die Hard movies). The human race is terrifyingly under-equipped at dealing with the surprisingly frequent threat of asteroids and meteors.
This Guardian piece outlines some of the ways in which an asteroid could theoretically be deflected off-course (including a nuclear weapon, a fascinating technique of drawing the asteroid away from Earth using gravity and smashing a big spacecraft into the offending rock) although all of the methods would require at least a decade of pre-warning to implement – the larger asteroid that passed us by on Friday was only discovered last year…
So it sounds like we’ve got a lot of work to do and luckily scientists around the globe responded to the Russian meteor with the kind of vigour and practicality we’ve come to expect from the science world.
Just a few days after the meteor struck, the chairman of Deep Space Industries announced that their fleet of small spacecraft would be used to monitor smaller asteroids while the University of Hawaii has announced plans for a new network of telescopes which will be able to monitor incoming meteors and warn us all of the impending threat.
Even better, these talented science folk – such as Dr. Bong Wie, director of the Asteroid Deflection Research Centre at Iowa State University and possessor of possibly the world’s coolest name – are being granted all the resources they need to save us all by their respective governments – oh, hang on. It turns out Dr. Bong Wie has received just $600,000 in grants from NASA to conduct his potentially world-saving research.
That’s $600,000 towards a project Wie predicts will require $50 million just to test. To add to the good news, NASA’s budget is being further reduced this year to just $17.7 billion, which is less than previous years in which the US space programme was in an outright ‘my dad is bigger than your dad’ fight with Russia. Out of that budget, it’s estimated that just 0.2% goes towards the research of asteroid.
In contrast, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that the US has spent $641.7 billion on the War in Afghanistan, or chasing its tail searching for Bin Laden (who was in Pakistan in a lavish compound) and generally failing at reducing the Taliban’s influence.
Surprisingly, our very own Dave and George actually upped their funding for space research by £60m, giving us all a very, very small glimmer of hope – even if that £60m pales in comparison to the £17bn spent funding our part in the Afghan war, the amount of tax lost due to tax avoidance schemes and might just be a way of quickening up their planned holiday to outer space. It’s a start though lads.
For now, though, there isn’t much we can do apart from pray to Brian (that’s reluctant messiah Brian, rather than Professor Cox, keep up) that another meteor chooses not to crash down on a major city unexpectedly anytime soon. Have a lovely Tuesday, everyone!
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