Maybe Obama just wants to save the Earth

New asteroids are being discovered every day, dozens of them by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) launched by NASA last year. Who knows when we might plot one's orbit and find it intersects with ours?

When the President announced his new space program, the main reaction was snark. Even here.

So rather than talk about Mars, space advocates are now talking up another possible result from the Obama Space Plan.

Saving the Earth.

You've already seen the movie,. It was the biggest hit of 1998. Armegeddon, starring Bruce Willis, involved a mission to deflect an asteroid from striking Earth and destroying civilization. It even had a black astronaut, Michael Clarke Duncan as Bear.

The plot was not so far-fetched. In 2004 NASA announced the discovery of Apophis, an asteroid 1,050 feet across that could possibly strike Earth in 2029, or maybe 2036, with an impact similar to what wiped out the dinosaurs.

Astronomers have since backed off that prediction. But it's still going to come close, and asteroids do strike planets, big asteroids. Ask a dinosaur the next time you fill up. Or look at the Moon. That crater called Tycho was an asteroid strike 95 million years ago.

Russia was so concerned it made moves last year to launch its own mission aimed at shifting Apophis' orbit. American astronomers fear such a mission may do more harm than good.

After the President's Florida announcement, which calls for relying on private space lift over the near term while boosting our deep space capability for the longer term, the political risk was made evident. Florida would be losing jobs. They have a Senate election coming up.

Then, in a panel discussion following the announcement, former NASA chief scientist John Grunfeld, newly appointed deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, started talking about moving asteroids.

New asteroids are being discovered every day, dozens of them, he said, by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), launched by NASA last year. Who knows when we might plot one's orbit and find it intersects with ours?

Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is also vice president of the Planetary Society, quickly picked up the theme. It's tough and risky and dangerous, yes. Then Space.com got its money quote. "You're saving all of humankind. That's worthy, isn't it?"

Well, isn't it?

The same technical strategy Obama announced for Mars, bypassing a generation of low Earth orbit launchers that might get us to the Moon in 10 years in favor of systems that might reach deep space in 20, using the savings to create a private space industry, also works for asteroids, and the budget could be accelerated if WISE finds something really dangerous.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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