Meet the Man Who Hunts Killer Asteroids

3 | By Michael A. Robinson

In May, I wrote to tell you about a team of experts that has launched a new company to mine precious metals from asteroids near Earth. Planetary Resources plans to extract ore and other resources from orbiting space rocks.

Not long ago, of course, this was the stuff of sci-fi.

It smacks of the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which a team of roughnecks lands on an asteroid on a collision course with Earth in order to blow it out of the sky.

As it turns out, there is a real-life asteroid hunter who is doing something even more exciting.

Dr. Ed Lu is a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three space flights, and he has just announced a new mission – find the asteroids that pose a threat to our planet and eradicate them. His work is more vital than you might think.

You see, near-Earth asteroids are a double-edged sword.

No doubt, thousands of them contain valuable metals and other physical assets that will open up a whole new paradigm of resource discovery and make some savvy investors rich.

On the other hand…

We’re surrounded by a belt of them that could strike Earth. Under the worst-case scenario, a large rock traveling at high speeds could wipe out most of the life on our planet. That remains a remote chance. But this fact is clear: Even a small space rock could cause widespread damage. It could kill thousands, or perhaps millions, if it were to strike a heavily populated urban area.

This is not the stuff of theory.

Earth has been hit by asteroids before – big ones.

Back in 1908, a space rock descended on a Siberian forest. More than 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, the Tunguska event leveled roughly 80 million trees. Just think of the havoc it would have caused had it struck New York City…

We need some way to track the asteroids that could pose a threat to us. And we need some way to prevent a potential collision with one from happening.

Enter Lu. He serves as the chairman and CEO of the nonprofit B612 Foundation. The group made waves last week when it announced plans to launch an asteroid-tracking telescope in the near future that can identify any killer space rocks that are on course to threaten us… decades before they could hit us.

The idea behind the Sentinel Space Telescope is simple. Place the infrared (IR) device into orbit around the Sun near Venus. Once there, Sentinel will map the swarms of large asteroids that ring the inner solar system.

Lu’s group says it plans to launch the instrument before the end of the decade. To do so, they will rely on another firm I told you about: Sentinel will blast off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Once there, the telescope will catalog 90% of the asteroids that are in Earth’s region of the solar system and that are larger than 425 feet (140 meters). The IR device also can find asteroids as small as 150 feet in diameter. It will orbit in a region of between 30 million and 170 million miles from Earth.

“During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million near-Earth asteroids,” Lu said in making the announcement in San Francisco. He added that Sentinel will be “creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth.”

For its part, B612 doesn’t plan to zap asteroids. Instead, it will transmit data back to earth using NASA’s Deep Space Network.

But just in case…

Lu has invented a device that could save the earth from a killer asteroid. Unlike in the movie Armageddon, Lu sees no need to blow the space rock into smithereens. He suggests a gentler, more cutting-edge way to save humanity, if need be.

His Gravity Tractor is a spacecraft that can alter an asteroid’s orbit. And it sounds like something straight out of Star Trek

Under a plan he describes on his website, Lu says the spacecraft would hover above the asteroid. It would then slowly pull the rock off course using nothing more than the gravitational attraction between the two bodies.

“If an asteroid is found to be at an impact trajectory with Earth,” Lu says, “you will have many decades of notice. And it turns out that you only need to change its velocity by a very small amount in order to prevent a collision.”

While working on this report for you, I was able to get Ed Lu on the phone.

I thought we would speak only briefly – I just needed to check a couple of facts. But our phone call turned into a wide-ranging chat that spanned nearly 30 minutes. Lu had some absolutely intriguing things to say.

No doubt, what he revealed to me during our call warrants a follow up. I will do my best to get the transcript of the tape back in time to file a report to you for Friday.

Stay tuned…


3 Responses to Meet the Man Who Hunts Killer Asteroids

  1. qkcmnt says:

    I’m concerned that Lu’s infrared (IR) device orbital B612 surveyor is planned at too close a distance to the sun, and may cause the wrong kind of gravitational pull — right into the sun. Should he want to bring it out to an orbit between Venus and Mars, or maybe even between Earth and Mars, I think that would be a better orbital place for the surveys. After all, the IR device will be much smaller than any of the planets, hence what I see as may be a fatal attraction for the orbiter, should he get it that close to the sun. Do we find asteroids that close to the sun? If not, why not? Could it be that they are too close and get sucked in? This is my concern for Lu’s nonprofit B612 Foundation and its money.

    • Gera says:

      Elder, you need to take your thorazine now beofre you blow a gasket There are a few things that can be absolutely guranteed by science. One of them is that sooner or later there will be an extinction-level asteroid that will hit us. Unless we are either off world at that time or have the ability to destroy or divert such an object, the entire human race is, well, f*****. Hitting a piece of rock that is on an orbital path and is hundreds of thousands of kilometers away isn’t all that hard, provided it’s seen in time. A few nuclear weapons would be more than enough to either divert it or break it into parts that would burn up in the atmosphere.Of course, we can assume there’s no danger, and when that assessment proves us wrong, we can all die. Personally, I’d rather not be in that position.

  2. qkcmnt says:

    By the way, a super big blast I got from the Gravity Tractor. It’s a great idea, so long as when you get close enough to the asteroid you don’t exacerbate the problem. If you get close with the idea to draw it away from a trajectorous course into earth, and it “hinks” the Gravity Tractor to itself, you’re in a heap of trouble when you blast away from the thing! Then you’ll have to get on the other side of the asteroid, and re-“hink” and re-blast: maybe twice or more! And you’d better not run out of blast air, either! Good luck, and God bless!

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