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Chelyabinsk: What, Exactly, Just Happened? (Updated)

Either way, it simply points out that, as former NASA astronaut/astrophysicist Ed Lu and British Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees pointed out just yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, we’re not being diligent enough, as a nation or civilization, in either tracking such objects or in developing means of diverting them from their deadly courses:

We have the technology to deflect these asteroids -- through small spacecraft known as kinetic impactors and gravity tractors that can change an asteroid’s trajectory -- but only if we have years of advance warning. We discovered 2012 DA14 only a year ago, so had it been on a collision course with Earth, there is nothing we could have done about it except evacuate the area near the expected impact site and hope for the best.

To defend ourselves, we first have to find and track the asteroids (like 2012 DA14) large enough to do great damage should they strike Earth. There are about one million such asteroids in dangerous orbits near Earth, yet scientists have identified the trajectories of less than 1% of them (fewer than 10,000). For every 2012 DA14 we know of, there are 99 more we know nothing about.

Despite our ignorance of the threat, and despite all of the warnings we’ve received -- from Tunguska, to Shoemaker-Levy 9, and now the latest hit and close pass -- it has been difficult to get Congress to adequately fund the kind of systems we need. The nature of the orbits of these objects means that they’re hard to see from Earth, partly because we have to look toward the Sun. The best place to look for them is from far out in the solar system, which requires a space telescope that can operate many millions of miles from Earth. As Dr. Lu notes in his piece, we can’t wait for the government any more. He’s founded a private non-profit foundation to raise the funds from individuals with more foresight than the solons on the Hill, and to build and launch such a telescope, called “Sentinel.” He’s also developed a method of gently moving such objects, called a gravity tractor, without breaking them up, which would just create a potentially bigger mess. And of course, beyond this non-profit effort, two companies have formed in the past year -- Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries -- who plan to mine such bodies for profit, which will of necessity involve technologies required to both find and move them.

So call your congressman, and tell him that we need to do more, but it will be even more productive to make a donation to an organization that is determined to do so, and to support the new space mining industry. If saving the planet from the Carbon Menace is worth trillions in lost economic growth, surely today’s events are a timely reminder that we can save it from something that we know has had devastating effects, at times wiping out much of the life on it, for only paltry millions.

More: Did Another Space Rock Crash in Cuba?

[Afternoon update]

OK, it looks like the two objects have completely different solar orbits. That is, they’re independent events, with extraordinarily coincidental timing. If you look at the bottom of this graphic from the Telegraph, you can see that they came at earth from paths almost perpendicular to each other. But if anything, this just makes the point stronger that we never know when we’re going to be hit by something that we didn’t see coming, unless we start looking for them seriously.