Why Aren’t More People Working on an Asteroid Shield?

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Author: Emi Kolawole / Video

Asteroid headed for Earth

Seriously, why aren’t all of America’s best and brightest working feverishly to keep us from being struck by an asteroid that could wipe a city (or more) from the face of the Earth? A cure for cancer, balancing the nation’s federal budget, and eliminating world hunger would all be rendered moot if an asteroid pulverized the planet.

Granted, as the Post’s Brian Vastag reports, neither a city-destroying nor Earth-ending space rock is on anywhere near an immediate collision course with the planet — for now. (Seriously, don’t panic.) But the anticipated near-miss of asteroid 2012 DA14 by 17,000 miles on Feb. 15 should inspire every innovator to want to figure out how to make Earth asteroid-proof, right?

Now, of course, there are a number of people working on how to keep Earth safe from asteroids and other potentially Earth-threatening debris. There are so many, in fact, that there is an international Planetary Defense Conference in Flagstaff, Ariz., in April.

And, as NASA Spokesman David Agle wrote via an e-mail Monday:

NASA places a high priority on tracking asteroids and protecting our home planet from them. Literally dozens of people are involved with some aspect of our near-Earth object (NEO) research across NASA and its centers. Moreover, there are many people involved in researching and understanding the nature of asteroids and comets, including those that come close to the Earth, as well as those who are trying to find and track them in the first place.

In addition to the resources NASA puts into understanding asteroids, the agency partners with university astronomers, space science institutes, and other agencies across the country that are working to track and better understand these near-Earth objects, often with grants, interagency transfers and other contracts from NASA.

This work is heavily automated, using robotic telescopes with specially designed software that automatically scan the night sky, take and process images to detect the moving objects and report data to automated catalog and orbit determination centers, all overseen by well-trained scientist on the ground.

Again, one of our primary responsibilities is to better understand and protect our home planet, which includes the study and mitigation of asteroids and other near-Earth object threats.

All of that is well and good, but this is still not a primary goal for the average technologist. If you plan to study physics or engineering, it’s likely that, after years of schooling, you won’t want to work on something that will (we hope!) not be used during your lifetime.

But that shouldn’t stop somebody from trying.

Meet Bill Ailor.

He is the principal engineer for The Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies (CORDS) at The Aerospace Corporation, and he has taken on the asteroid-protection challenge, becoming interested in the field around 2003-2004.

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