About the space probe

I’m a big fan of NASA. From the early days of space exploration, I have paid attention to the work of scientists and engineers who have pushed space exploration and developed amazing systems that have expanded our knowledge of the universe. From flights carrying humans to robots operating on distant planets, the ideas and imaginations of humans about how to explore the universe are amazing.Our lives have been improved by all kinds of products and developments that have made their way from the space program to everyday use here on this planet. Medical advances, including remote heart monitoring, have had a direct impact on the quality of life of people that I know and love.

However, it is clear to me that I do not think like a NASA engineer. I’m not trained as an engineer, and I tend to approach problems from a less analytical perspective. Many of the projects of the agency come as surprises and sometimes seem a bit strange to me. I’ve read about the enthusiasm and energy that NASA scientists put into the Dart probe that smashed into an asteroid a couple of days ago and I have to admit that I’m a lot less enthusiastic than the engineers pictured in the articles about their work.

A BBC article reported that controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU-APL) “erupted with joy as Dimorphos filled the field of view on Dart’s camera just before then going blank.” The scientists calculated that the impact was just 17 meters from the exact center of the asteroid. It will take weeks before scientists on the mission will know for sure if their experiment has worked. Observations from other satellites and space telescopes will be used to determine whether or not the course of the asteroid has been altered by the impact.

Dr. Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA, stated, "We're embarking on a new era of humankind, an era in which we potentially have the capability to protect ourselves from something like a dangerous hazardous asteroid impact. What an amazing thing; we've never had that capability before,”

I’m still trying to get the experiment straight in my mind. Engineers have developed an incredibly expensive and complex combination of technologies to launch a satellite designed to smash into an asteroid and change its direction. They have done so because they want to have the technology available should there come a time in the future when an asteroid is determined to be heading for a collision with the earth that could have catastrophic consequences. Many scientists agree that an asteroid striking the earth was responsible for the mass die off of dinosaurs. They warn that mass casualties and perhaps the end of life as we know it could be the result of such an impact.

So they built a rocket and sent a devise to intentionally crash into a distant asteroid that poses no danger to our planet to prove that they have the capability to crash a different probe into a different asteroid should the need arise at some time in the future. The project has been dubbed a “planetary defense system.”

Since we humans have invested so much energy and human creativity in the design of this defense system, it makes sense that we understand the likelihood of employing it in an earth-saving maneuver. According to the BBC article an asteroid large enough to cause mass casualties might strike the earth about once in every 20,000 years. Odds of a larger asteroid that would cause global devastation are about once every 500,000 years. Of course those odds do not specify which years the threat might occur so we do not know whether such a threat could arise int he lives of our great, great, great, great grandchildren. It is very unlikely such an event will happen for many generations.

Meanwhile, back on our planet, the Canadian maritime provinces are cleaning up after an unusually strong hurricane caused destruction and resulted in casualties. Another record-breaking hurricane has resulted in the complete collapse of the power grid in Cuba and is not lined up for a devastating impact on Florida. Warnings are out, evacuations are underway, and fears are rising. We have become more sophisticated in predicting the path of major storms, due in part to space technologies. Satellite imagery is very useful in helping to save lives by giving warning in advance of storms. As far as I know, however, we aren’t running any experiments on technologies designed to alter the path of major storms to save lives. If a person is in the direct path of the storm the best defense is to get out of the way and evacuate to a safe shelter.

Climate scientists say that increasingly strong storms are the product of increasing global temperatures. There is widespread acceptance that global warming is the result of the overconsumption of fossil fuels. The science surrounding climate change and its causes has its roots in observations made hundreds of years ago. We humans have known for a long time about the treat of human caused global climate change. To my knowledge, however, we haven’t developed the collective will to work together to defend our planet from its effects.

All of this has me wondering. While we are fairly certain that we need to devise systems to protect humans from mass extinctions from pollution caused diseases, starvation, and mass climate migration, we are slow to respond. The chances of devastating consequences of our current course of behavior are extremely high. Human lives have already been lost and more are threatened as the result of climate change. If we do not make dramatic changes in the next 50 years the consequences are fairly certain and they include flood, fire, famine, and pandemic.

So we focus our attention and capabilities on providing a defense system for the one in 500,000 odds while we haven’t yet found focus around the certain crisis that is immediately before us. If we don’t make serious changes in the next 50 years, humans will not inhabit this planet long enough to deploy an asteroid deflecting probe to defend the planet.

That is the way our minds and imaginations work. We avoid the things that are right in front of us and focus our attention on things well beyond our grasp. I guess we can hope that there is some as yet unforeseen spin off technology or understanding from the space probe that might be used to defend us from a much more likely and immediate danger.

Movies about defending earth from asteroids seem to be more popular than ones about defending the planet from our own behavior.

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