NASA Preparing to Deflect Massive Asteroid From Earth Collision

A Meteor glowing as it enters the Earth's atmosphere

NASA is preparing to deflect the massive asteroid, Bennu, currently set on an Earthbound trajectory for the year 2135. This potential Earth impactor is about 1,600 feet long and may require a nuclear blast to disrupt its course.

The likelihood of Bennu hitting our planet is a 1-in-2700 chance, but when it comes to an asteroid that size, those odds are a bit too close for comfort. In the event of an impact, Bennu, would slam into the planet with 80,000 times the force of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Depending on where it strikes, Bennu would blow a crater over a mile into the Earth’s crust, causing mega-tsunamis, fires, and likely a nuclear winter. The chances of our species surviving would be slim.

NASA is working proactively to nudge Bennu on a different course, as it gets more difficult to do so, the longer we wait. In conjunction with the National Nuclear Security Administration, NASA is working on a project proposal called HAMMER, the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission, to prevent humanity from sharing the same demise as the dinosaurs.

HAMMER is ideal for knocking large asteroids off course, especially those with a short timeframe for impacting Earth. Sound like the premise of the 1998 Michael Bay blockbuster, Armageddon?

 

Near Miss Asteroids

But HAMMER is still just a hypothetical mission, funding for it hasn’t been approved and the use of nuclear weapons is rightfully a sensitive proposition. Scientists must exercise caution when employing nuclear weapons to break up asteroids, as blasting the rock into a multitude of smaller, radioactive meteorites might pose a greater risk.

The alternative to a nuclear armed probe is an “impactor,” like the one NASA used in its 2005 Deep Impact mission that successfully collided with the Tempel 1 comet. An impactor would push the asteroid off course, but this solution is only feasible for smaller asteroids.

In Sept. 2016, NASA deployed the probe, OSIRIS-Rex, to land on the surface of Bennu to collect and return samples to Earth for further study. The probe is scheduled to reach Bennu in August of this year and return to Earth in 2023.

Though Bennu may not hit us for another century or more, planning to mitigate its impact now could save future generations from having to deal with a potential catastrophe at the last minute. Though astrophysicists warn that we face a greater threat from impact by unseen objects.

The interstellar asteroid, Oumuamua, had a similar width as Bennu and wasn’t picked up on our radar until it was already on its way out of the solar system. The Chelyabinsk meteor also snuck under the radar, exploding in Earth’s lower atmosphere in 2013. The meteor exploded before it hit the ground and still injured 1,500 people.

Bennu asteroid

 



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NASA's Curiosity Rover May Have Found Fossils on Mars

For years, theorists have suggested that Mars once contained the necessary requirements to support life. Now, NASA’s Curiosity rover may have finally found indication of this from images showing what appear to be fossilized microbial structures.

Over the past five and a half years, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been mapping and imaging the Martian surface to gain more insight on the dusty planet. In addition to snapping pictures, the nomadic vehicle has been searching for signs of water, while also determining the viability for human colonization.

Scientists know that water once flowed on Mars and have been on a quest to discover whether it still does to this day. Aside from ice caps on the Martian poles, evidence of water in Mars’ past can be seen in dried lake beds, gullies, and what was once a large ocean in the planet’s topography.

In recent images of the Gillespie Lake outcrop, in the Yellowknife Bay area, Curiosity sent back pictures of small stick-like formations in a segment of sedimentary rock. To the untrained eye these formations might not appear to be much, but to a microbiologist who has studied microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS), the pictures seem to have some profound implications.

 

via cnet.com

 

Nora Noffke of Old Dominion University in Virgina meticulously compared the photo to instances of MISS on Earth and published a paper that has intrigued scientists at NASA. Though she’s hesitant to make any definitive claims, her paper provides some of the best evidence to date for indications of past lifeforms.

The stick-shaped markings aren’t actually considered to be fossils of microorganisms themselves, but rather fossils of their imprints.

Some have contested that these tubular markings are more likely crystals, rather than the footprint of microorganisms. In either case, the finding shows that the area once consisted of a body of water that had the elements needed to support life.

NASA is planning on sending another rover to Mars in 2020 that is nearly identical to Curiosity, with the goal of strictly searching for signs of previous life. Once collected, samples will be sent back to Earth from a small rocket deployed from the rover.

Scientists have recently found other signs of life on the red planet, including fluctuating levels of methane in the atmosphere. Some have proposed the idea that this gas may be coming from life below the surface.

On Earth, methane is produced from bacteria, primarily in the stomachs of animals and humans. Could there be bacteria, or life containing bacteria, producing that methane below the Martian surface?

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