If you believe the folks at NASA—and really, why shouldn’t you?—it’s only a matter of when, not if, we need someone like Dr. Bong Wie to save the human race from a civilization-destroying catastrophe.
Wie is the director of the Asteroid Deflection Research Center at Iowa State University, the only institution in the United States dedicated to the deflection of what NASA calls Near-Earth Objects (NEOs)—“asteroids” to the rest of us. He’s been busy lately. On Friday, Americans woke up to reports and videos of the largest meteorite in more than a century crashing into Siberia. In the late afternoon, 600,000 people watched online as the DA14 asteroid passed just 17,000 miles from Earth. In response to all of this, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, announced he would hold a hearing “to develop contingencies” in the event of an imminent threat from outer space.
Scientists have been calling on the government to wake up to the NEO threat for decades, “but nothing happened,” Wie says. “We are very lucky to have today’s events.”
Wie’s plan for destroying an Earth-bound asteroid is simple: Stick a massive nuclear device into it and blast it to smithereens. Notwithstanding the 168 factual inaccuracies NASA engineers have reportedly found in Armageddon, Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton got it essentially right. “Astronauts will not be required, so clearly this would be an unmanned robotic mission—but we will need a nuclear device,” Wie says.
… Spherule beds deposited between 3.5 and 1.7 billion years ago have been found all over the world — but this time frame doesn’t match up with existing models of unusually violent asteroid activity, specifically a span in our solar system’s history known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). According to what’s known as the Nice model, the LHB lasted from 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, when the irregular orbits of our cosmic neighborhood’s outermost planets triggered a cannonade of asteroids and comets throughout the Solar System. What, then, was the source of the extraterrestrial assault responsible for the spherule beds that geologists see dating from 3.8-billion-years ago onward?
According to a new model, created by a research team led by planetary dynamicist William Bottke, these asteroids likely originated from a long-extinct extension of the asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Computer simulations that incorporate this ancient extension not only reproduce a modern population of asteroids called the Hungarias, they also predict the occurrence of roughly 70 impact events, on the same scale or larger as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, between 3.7 and 1.7 billion years ago. In brief: their results suggest that the LHB lasted, quite literally, billions of years longer than previously thought.