Asteroid danger? The hunt for bombardment continues – the expert is relaxed despite the “observation gap”.

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Asteroid between Mars and Jupiter ©NASA/JPL-Caltech via www.imago-images.de

There are countless asteroids known to mankind in the solar system. They may have made life on Earth possible today. However, the effect can be disastrous.

Frascati/Noordwijk – They’re leftover pieces from the make-up of our solar system. Humanity may not have come into being without it, but it is nonetheless threatened by it: asteroids may have brought the basis of all life to Earth – but their impact today could have disastrous consequences. However, humanity is not defenseless. “This is the only natural disaster we can account for in advance,” Detlev Koschny, an asteroid expert at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, said on World Asteroid Day on June 30. Bombing asteroids like in blockbuster movies is no longer just a fantasy. However, for some of the pieces, there are huge gaps of note.

Asteroids: more than 20,000 “Near-Earth Objects”

According to the US space agency NASA, there are more than one million known asteroids in our solar system, of which more than 20,000 so-called Near Earth Objects (NEOs) transit our orbit around the Earth during its orbit. Two famous events show what such masses can do: On June 30, 1908, the shock wave of an asteroid explosion may have swept millions of trees in Tunguska in Siberia in an area roughly the size of Saarland. In light of this event, the United Nations later declared June 30 International Asteroid Day. In February 2013, an asteroid 20 meters in size and traveling 66,000 kilometers per hour exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk. About 1,500 people were injured in the blast, most of them from window shards. Thousands of buildings were damaged.

Asteroids: Could have made life on Earth possible in the first place

But asteroids also have a plus side: Millions of years ago, rocks and bits of metal from space could have made life on Earth possible in the first place. Koschny explains that models said there would be much less water on Earth if there was no external supply. It does not come from comets. “The type of water is not suitable. What remains are asteroids.” It is at least a common theory that they brought water to Earth.

Certainly, the development of life on our planet was strongly influenced by a subsequent event: the impact of a twelve-kilometre-wide segment in Mexico 60 million years ago is considered to be the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs. This was the only reason the mammals were able to establish their existence after that, says Koschny.

Asteroids: NASA wants to test launch celestial bodies

And today? Constantly glowing objects appear in the night sky: dust and small rock fragments from space burning up in the atmosphere. “The total mass that reaches the Earth is estimated to be about 100 tons per day,” Koschny says. Large pieces are still a hazard. Warning protocols are in effect from a size of about 20 meters, says ESA’s Senior Asteroid Defense Coordinator Richard Moisel, whose team operates in Frascati near Rome.

The European Space Agency and NASA want to research asteroid bombing as a potential defense option. NASA’s Dart probe, which has already launched, is set to collide with the smaller portion of a double asteroid in September and shift its orbit slightly around the larger asteroid. The European Space Agency’s Hera mission is scheduled to begin in 2024 and take measurements there.

Asteroids: ‘watching holes’ must be closed

However, experts still see loopholes in asteroid monitoring. According to Koschny and Moissl, observations are still made almost exclusively from Earth. “In the future we will need space telescopes to have a better early warning system,” Moisel says. “We have to close the monitoring gaps.” The large portions are not the problem. “The things we all think we know,” Koschny says. “What is the current threat in the 20-40 meter range.” With an object 40 meters high above a larger city, you have to evacuate – and in this size range, you only know a small percentage of the potential candidates.

But people should not feel fear and anxiety right now. “I can rule out a threat to civilization at the moment,” Koschny says. And Moissl doesn’t see anything serious coming down to Earth at the moment either. “I can already sleep well right now.” (dpa)

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