With all the space rocks zipping by Earth these days, we're pretty much cruising for an interplanetary bruising. But NASA's line on the situation is, to paraphrase administrator Mike Griffin: "Forget about that whole thing; we're going back to the Moon! Yay!" Fortunately, the B612 Foundation is slightly more serious about making sure our civilization isn't snuffed out by an asteroid or comet. Headed by former astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the non-profit is kicking $50,000 to a group of experts at Jet Propulsion Labs to study the "gravity tractor" method of deflecting doomsday objects that are inbound for momma Earth.
While Griff and his Bush Administration cronies dust off their tie-dye shirts, smoke a bowl and try to relive NASA's Apollo golden years with their mission back to the Moon, it's good to know someone's paying attention to the Asteroid threat.
Of the many different methods proposed for altering space rocks' course — or blowing them up — gravity tractoring seems to be the most attractive. By launching a satellite towards a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) and hanging out close by, the vehicle's gravitational influence will slowly, and ever so slightly alter the asteroid's course. The process requires a lot of advaned notice, but should work without the use of lasers, nuclear weapons, or Bruce Willis.
From B612's mission statement:
The reality of concern to us, among others, is that the discovery of a NEA headed toward an impact with Earth could be announced at any time by the Spaceguard program. If this were to happen the public would be extremely concerned and demand to know what is being done about it.
Unfortunately the answer is "nothing". This, it seems to us, is intolerable and could cause widespread alarm. For this reason the B612 Foundation, recognizing that national governments feel (to the extent that they have considered the matter) that they are not in a position to spend public money on mitigation, are taking the initiative now to begin this process with the use of private funds. We believe that there are adequate numbers of intelligent and concerned people to support the critical initial planning work that needs to be done to eventually reach an operational system to deflect incoming NEAs.
Our conviction is that there is nothing more powerful to convince the public that this audacious challenge can be met than to actually do it. Our goal is to physically deflect a representative asteroid as a demonstration that a longer term, more challenging operational system can become a reality.
Now of course it's a possibility that B612 could take a rock that's not an imminent threat to Earth and make it one by altering its course, but that's pretty unlikely. More important is that someone is serious about saving humanity from a space rock strike, but they're seriously underfunded — $50,000 is a drop in the bucket, and we're going to need an X-Prize style contest, or some mega-rich asteroid geek to pony up some bucks if we're ever going to dodge the big one.
Image: B612 Foundation