Tracking Near-Earth Asteroids

It’s about to become an obsession. NASA has just setup a Twitter account, @asteroidwatch, to chronicle the agency’s “efforts to detect, track & characterize potentially hazardous asteroids & comets that could approach Earth.” Launched yesterday, the account already as more than 15,000 followers.

And it’s not just a one-way stream of scare-tweets, either. The NASA employee at the helm of the Twitter account has been answering questions from followers. Yes, it will debunk overhyped false alarms. No, the program can’t watch the entire solar system. And since you asked about it, here’s a link to ways that scientists think they could mitigate a collision.

Awesome. I’ve always been interested in mass extinction events and apocalypse scenarios in general. I got my start in science journalism by writing about how a gamma ray burst could have been the cause of earth’s second largest mass extinction, which occured at the end of the Ordivician period 443 million years ago (think trilobites). The story was part of the application that landed me the Richard Casement Internship at The Economist in London. From the story:

A GRB 10,000 light-years away that lasted just 10 seconds might blind surface dwellers and ionize Earth’s atmosphere. The energy from the burst would tear apart nitrogen and oxygen molecules, smearing the planet in nitrogen dioxide, a brown gas that is a component of industrial smog. The haze would shield Earth from sunlight and trigger a global temperature drop. Nitrogen dioxide would also deplete the ozone layer, allowing ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun to bombard Earth for about a year, until the ozone recovered.

Ouch. But ever since this great Atlantic article from June 2008, near-earth asteroids have been on my mind. I mean, really. Take a look at our pock-marked solar system: our moon, Mercury, Mars, and most recently in the news, Jupiter. It’s folly to think that Earth is somehow immune. It’s good to know that someone’s on the look out.

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