Monday, June 2, 2014

This Man Makes the Planet Safe for Us

Don Yeomans (Photo Gillian Laub for TIME)
His name is Don Yeomans.  A 72-year-old astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, his job is to watch space for asteroids that could collide with earth.

Immediately, two blockbuster movies come to mind: Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998).  (Huh.  I wonder what the Zeitgeist was back in 1997 that would put these movies into production?)  If I remember correctly, the scientists in these movies had peripheral roles and were not portrayed by big stars.  In the first one, the military takes over the problem.  In the second, the emphasis was on how the general population would react and destroying the threat was not the main event.  I remember the ending being very moving.  So, I was surprised to learn in the latest issue of Time magazine that there is actually an astronomer at NASA whose job it is to watch space.

Actually, Yeomans heads up the Near Earth Object Program Office, the group responsible for identifying threats and keeping an eye on them.  Everyday, billions of rocks of varying sizes hit the earth's atmosphere and burn up even before we can see them as meteorites.  For a rock of truly substantial size to do substantial damage, we'd need to wait a while.  The Chelyabinsk meteor that hit in February 2013 in Russia was only about 66 feet and its explosion in the atmosphere equaled the power of about 33 atomic bombs.  The asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago was 6 miles wide and its explosion upon impact had the power of 3 billion atomic bombs.  That one devastated earth and led to the mass dinosaur extinction.

So, is there imminent danger of an asteroid like that one that killed the dinosaurs hitting us soon?  Naw.  The estimate is that such an event would happen every 89 million years, give or take a couple million.  We have another 24 million years to worry about it.

But is there imminent danger of another Chelyabinsk meteor hitting somewhere on earth in the near future?  That could happen every 8 months to 200 years.  So, yes. 

Is it a good thing that NASA has a program that watches asteroids for us?  The government thinks so.  Congress doubled the program's budget this year.
Photo: NASA

Is this something I'm going to lose sleep over?  No, not with Mr. Yeomans on the job.  It was interesting to learn that 98% of the work done for tracking asteroids and identifying dangerous ones is done by the US.  The only other country involved is Italy: a team of astronomers working at the University of Pisa refine orbit predictions and estimate the chances of any future collisions.

This issue affects the entire earth.  Every country.  Mr. Yeomans comments in the article that it's an international problem that needs an international solution.  Now there's the real challenge: how to get the entire world on board with this.....

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