A European astronaut says the risk of the uncontrolled Chinese rocket hitting a home is like getting hit by lightning – and if it did, people would only get a few hours’ warning

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch a Long March 5B rocket lift off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan, southern China.

  • An uncontrolled Chinese rocket is heading toward Earth, and nobody knows where the debris could land.
  • A European astronaut told Insider it is unlikely they will fall on inhabited areas.
  • But if they did, authorities would only have “very few hours” to warn people, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It is highly unlikely that debris from the uncontrolled Chinese rocket that’s falling back to Earth will hit inhabited areas, an official from the European Space Agency told Insider on Friday.

But if the rocket were to fall near an inhabited area, authorities would have only “very few hours” to give people warning, Thomas Reiter, an astronaut and the interagency coordinator for the ESA told Insider on Friday.

A large section of a rocket launched by China on April 29 is currently orbiting the Earth and falling toward the atmosphere. But because the rocket is not controlled, it is not clear where or when it will reenter the atmosphere.

Experts currently believe the rocket could land anywhere within 40 degrees of latitude north of south of the Equator.

“A large part is covered by oceans. Another large part is covered by desert,” Reiter said.

He said that for this reason, “we can say that the risk that something hits inhabited area is comparable to a person getting hit by a lightning.”

However, he said, because it won’t be clear where the rocket will land until the last moment, “unfortunately it’s very difficult to give warning to those areas, if it would, for example, fall down inhabited areas.”

“The pre-warning would be within very few hours, probably even less,” Reiter said.

Reiter said most of the rocket is likely to burn up in the atmosphere, where the temperatures upon reentry are more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, Reiter told Insider.

But he said it is likely that some parts of the rocket are built with materials that can sustain these high temperatures, the likelihood that those parts of the rocket could hit Earth is “very high,” Reiter said.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the majority of the rocket was likely to burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere, and that there was a “very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground.”

Reiter said: “The risk to hit any inhabited areas should be kept as close to zero as possible.”

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SpaceX’s Starlink website can now be read in French as the satellite internet network expands worldwide

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • SpaceX has translated the Starlink website into French as more people across the world sign up to the service.
  • Starlink isn’t live in France yet, but over 300 million people speak French around the world.
  • The website also allows customers to pay in euros, instead of dollars.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX’s Starlink website now also has a French version, as more people from across the world place orders for its satellite internet service.

The website also gives customers the option to pay in euros, rather than dollars.

Starlink isn’t available yet in France, but given that more than 300 million people across the world speak French and it’s the second most widely spoken native language, it’s no surprise that SpaceX have made it an option on its website to attract more customers.

Screenshot of Starlink website in French
Screenshot of Starlink website in French

If someone in France wants to sign up for Starlink, they put their address in the box and the next page will tell them when they can expect the service to be available in their area. Currently, it says Starlink will arrive in France between mid to late 2021, but subscribers can pay a €99 deposit to secure the service – around $120.

Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and areas of the US where Starlink isn’t live yet also provide the option of preordering the internet service in exchange for a deposit.

Musk tweeted in February the cost of Starlink is “meant to be the same price in all countries. Only difference should be taxes & shipping.”

Read more: I tried Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite-internet project, for 3 weeks after moving to rural Vermont. It’s a game changer.

SpaceX said Tuesday it has gained more than 500,000 orders and deposits from customers around the world, indicating the pace at which demand for the space-based internet is growing.

Since Starlink’s “Better Than Nothing Beta” test launched in October, the service has amassed more than 10,000 beta testers globally and has blasted over 1,350 satellites into orbit. The company’s goal is to have up to 42,000 satellites in orbit by mid-2027.

The most recent Starlink launch was on Tuesday when SpaceX sent 60 satellites into orbit via its reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

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Elon Musk said SpaceX wants to blast its Starship rocket into the sky again soon, after the last prototype landed without exploding

GettyImages 1229892421
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Elon Musk said SpaceX “might try to refly SN15 soon,” after a Starship prototype’s Wednesday landing.
  • SpaceX has launched five Starships in five months. The latest version is the only one to not explode.
  • It takes SpaceX one step closer to creating a fully reusable rocket that can fly to orbit and back.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Elon Musk on Friday said his aerospace company SpaceX may attempt another blast off of its fifth Starship rocket soon, following its successful landing on Wednesday.

Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, and flew to high altitude, before plunging back down to Earth and landing smoothly back on the landing pad.

Musk wants to do this again with the same rocket prototype “soon,” he said in a Twitter reply to an article by Teslarati about the successful test flight.

It’s taken SpaceX five months to get the rocket landing right. The first Starship test flight was in December, the second happened in February, the third and fourth both lifted off in March, and the most recent launch was on Wednesday.

The latest version of the mega-spaceship was the only version to not explode, taking SpaceX closer to adding another reusable launch vehicle to its collection. The previous four Starship prototypes burst into flames either during or shortly after landing.

These prototypes are the upper stage of a two-part system. SpaceX want to add on a Super Heavy booster, which will fire the rocket towards orbit, the moon and eventually Mars. The idea is that Starship will return to Earth so the mission can be repeated again and again.

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

A final version of the 16-story tall Starship rocket is set to land the first humans on the moon since 1972 under an exclusive contract with NASA. The spaceship will send two astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.

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The Chinese rocket speeding back to Earth is so unpredictable it could land almost anywhere. One guess is around Turkmenistan late on May 8.

Experts say anywhere in the shaded area could be the re-entry point for a piece of China’s Long March 5B rocket. Turkmenistan – one possible landing area – is marked with an arrow.

  • The US military and others are tracking a Chinese rocket piece due to re-enter the atmosphere soon.
  • Experts have highlighted a huge swathe of the planet where the rocket could come down.
  • Some say it will re-enter over Turkmenistan Sunday, but estimates differ by thousands of miles.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Experts are tracking a large section of a Chinese rocket which is due to re-enter the atmosphere in the next two days or so.

As the impact gets closer, calculations about the time and location of the debris re-entry are likely to improve. Until then, estimates will “continue to vary wildly,” according to the US military.

It is very difficult to predict where the rocket will land because it is thought to be making its descent in an uncontrolled way.

Space-Track, a website run by the 18th Space Control Squadron, a branch of the US military that tracks space debris, said in a tweet on Friday that the rocket will reenter around 11:13 PM UTC, or 7:13 PM ET, on Saturday.

According to the coordinates given in the tweet, the rocket would fall over Turkmenistan.

These estimates will “continue to vary wildly,” Space-Track said, until it becomes clear when exactly the rocket will reach the atmosphere.

On Thursday, it predicted the rocket would land in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

That is because the rocket currently hurtling around the Earth on an orbit at about 18,000 mph, as it lowers towards the Earth at around 0.3 mph, Harvard Astronomer Jonathan McDowell said in a tweet.

That means if the estimates of when the rocket would reach the atmosphere are off by even a half an hour, the rocket could be almost on the other side of the Earth.

As of early Friday, the margin of error for Space-Track’s estimate was at least 18 hours either way.

Another body tracking the rocket, the Aerospace Corporation, a not-for profit-company that receives US funding, predicted on Thursday that the rocket would reenter the atmosphere on May 9 at 3:43 AM UTC, which is Sunday, at 11:43 PM, ET time.

The rocket could hit the atmosphere anywhere along the yellow lines in the map above at that time, they say.

So far, the only certainty is that the rocket would re-enter the atmosphere within a latitude of 41.5 degrees north and south of the equator, which covers an area as far north as New York City, and as far south as New Zealand.

The “exact entry point of the rocket into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” US Space Command, a branch of the US military that is tracking the object, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Space-Track Twitter page said it would publish estimates daily.

The object that is being tracked is the core module of a Long March 5B rocket that was launched by China on April 29.

Common practice is for these types of objects to fall back to Earth without reaching orbit, which makes it easier to predict where they will fall, Aerospace Corporation said in a blog post.

But the core module of the Chinese rocket reached orbit, and is now circling the Earth on an elliptical pattern, slowly being pulled closer and closer to the atmosphere, Aerospace Corporation said.

The object, which is thought to be around 22 tons, should mostly disintegrate upon reentry, but experts are concerned that some debris could survive and reach the surface of the Earth.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that because of the design of the rocket, the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and there is “a very low probability” of its re-entry causing harm.

Chinese authorities plan to release information about the timing of the rocket’s re-entry in “a timely manner,” he said, according to the Associated Press .

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The US is tracking an uncontrolled Chinese rocket traveling at 18,000 miles an hour that is due to crash-land around May 8

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
The Long March 5B rocket carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China on April 29.

  • US Space Command said it is watching fragments of a Chinese rocket due to crash soon.
  • The estimated landing time is around May 8. Nobody knows exactly where it will hit.
  • The location of the debris will be known only “hours” before its reentry, Space Command said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Pentagon has said it is tracking a chunk of a Chinese rocket that is due to come back into the atmosphere in the coming days in an uncontrolled re-entry.

As of now, they do not know where the debris could land.

The exact point at which the rocket will enter the atmosphere will only be known within “hours” of its reentry, the US Space Command, a branch of the US military, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The core of the rocket, which was launched by China on April 29, has been predicted to come back to Earth “around May 8,” Space Command said. Its exact trajectory is still unclear.

The rocket is currently in orbit and will be falling back to Earth uncontrolled, Insider’s Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported on Saturday.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told CNN that the rocket is travelling at 18,000 miles per hour, which means a tiny change to its orbit would change its trajectory significantly.

Based on the rocket’s current orbit, the debris could fall as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, Reuters reported.

Much of the rocket is likely to burn up on re-entry, experts are concerned that some might fall back to Earth.

Although it could hit a populated area, it is far more likely that it won’t. The majority of the Earth’s surface is ocean, and much of its land is uninhabited.

The risk of the debris causing damage is “pretty small,” and it is likely they will fall into the ocean, McDowell told CNN.

But it is not null. Last time a Chinese Long March 5B rocket, similar to the one that was launched this time, reentered the atmosphere, debris reportedly landed on buildings in two villages in the Ivory Coast.

Letting debris reenter the atmosphere uncontrolled is “unacceptable,” McDowell told Space News.

“Since 1990 nothing over 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to reenter uncontrolled,” he said.

The core of the rocket is thought to weigh about 21 tons.

Answering a reporter’s question about the Chinese rocket on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US is “committed to addressing the risks of growing congestion due to space debris.”

The Long March 5B rocket was carrying the first component of China’s space station, which China aims to complete by 2022.

The launch was one of 11 planned missions to build the station, Insider’s Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported on April 29.

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A NASA probe detected a strange radio signal in Venus’ atmosphere last year. Astronomers have figured out where it came from.

NASA parker probe venus
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe snapped an up-close view of Venus when it flew by the planet in July 2020.

  • NASA’s Parker Solar Probe detected a strange radio signal while flying by Venus in July.
  • The probe flew through Venus’ upper atmosphere, where such signals naturally occur, to collect data.
  • The data show Venus’ atmosphere has thinned, a process linked to solar activity.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

During a close flyby of the planet Venus on July 11, 2020, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe detected something odd.

As it dipped just 517 miles above the Venusian surface, the probe’s instruments recorded a low-frequency radio signal – a telltale sign that Parker had skimmed through the ionosphere, a layer of the planet’s upper atmosphere.

This was the first time an instrument had been able to directly record measurements of Venus’ upper atmosphere in nearly three decades, and the data gives us a new understanding of how Venus changes in response to cyclic changes in the sun.

“I was just so excited to have new data from Venus,” Glyn Collinson, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release.

According to a recent study by Collinson’s team, Venus’ upper atmosphere was an order of magnitude thinner last year than it was in 1992 – the last time scientists were able to collect data from the planet’s atmosphere.

Venus’ thick, hot atmosphere makes it hard to explore

Venus NASA surface
The surface of Venus as seen on September 16, 2010.

Venus is similar to Earth in size and composition, yet crucially different: It’s a toxic, scorching hot hell-world that is likely completely inhospitable to life as we know it.

How the two planets could have developed into such radically different beasts is of profound interest to planetary scientists and astrobiologists searching for other habitable worlds in the galaxy.

Yet missions to explore Venus have been relatively few. There’s not much point sending landers; they can’t survive the planet’s 864-degree-Fahrenheit (462-degree-Celsius) surface.

Sending orbiting probes is also considered problematic due to the incredibly thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid rain clouds that make it hard to tell what’s happening on the surface.

For these reasons, Venus hasn’t been a popular target for dedicated missions in some time (Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter being the recent exception), and a lot of our recent data has come piecemeal, from instruments with other primary objectives, like the Parker Solar Probe.

As the Parker probe conducts its mission to study the sun in close detail, it’s been using Venus for gravity assist maneuvers – slingshotting around the planet to alter its velocity and trajectory. It was on one of these gravity assist flybys that the probe’s instruments recorded a radio signal.

Collinson, who has worked on other planetary missions, noted an odd familiarity that he couldn’t quite place in the shape of the signal.

“Then the next day, I woke up,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I know what this is!'”

It was the same kind of signal recorded by NASA’s Galileo probe when the space skimmed through the ionospheres of Jupiter’s moons. The ionosphere is a layer of atmosphere where solar radiation ionizes atoms, resulting in a charged plasma that produces low-frequency radio emission that scientists can detect.

Once the researchers realized the signal was ionospheric plasma, they were able to use the signal to calculate the density of the Venusian ionosphere, and compare that density to similar measurements taken in 1992. Fascinatingly, the ionosphere was an order of magnitude thinner in 2020 than it was in 1992.

The sun wreaks havoc on Venus

The team believes that thinning has something to do with solar cycles. Every 11 years, the sun’s magnetic poles swap places: south becomes north and north becomes south. It’s not clear what drives these cycles, but we do know that the poles switch when the magnetic field is at its weakest.

When the sun’s magnetic field is weak, there’s fewer instances of sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections – when the sun releases plasma and bits of its magnetic field into space. This period of minimal activity is aptly called the solar minimum.

Once the poles have switched, the magnetic field strengthens, and solar activity increases to a maximum before subsiding again for the next polar switch.

NASA sun video
A NASA image of the solar surface.

Measurements of Venus from Earth suggested that Venus’ ionosphere was changing in sync with the solar cycles, growing thicker at solar maximum and thinner at solar minimum. But without direct measurements, it was difficult to confirm – until the Parker probe’s recent flyby.

The 1992 measurement was taken at a time close to solar maximum; the 2020 measurement close to solar minimum. They were both consistent with the Earth-based measurements.

“When multiple missions are confirming the same result, one after the other, that gives you a lot of confidence that the thinning is real,” Robin Ramstad, an astronomer from the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in the release.

Exactly why the solar cycle has this effect on Venus’ ionosphere is unclear, but there are two leading theories.

The first is that the upper boundary of the planet’s ionosphere could be getting compressed to a lower altitude during solar minimum, which prevents atoms ionized on the day side from flowing to the night side, resulting in a thinner night side ionosphere. The second is that Venus’ ionosphere leaks into space at a faster rate during solar minimum.

Neither of these mechanisms could be ruled out by the data collected by the new Parker probe, but Collinson’s team hopes that more observations and future missions to Venus might be able to clarify what’s going on.

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SpaceX says more than 500,000 people have ordered or placed a deposit for its Starlink internet service

Elon Musk
SpaceX has launched some 1,500 Starlink satellites to date, and aims to eventually have 42,000 orbiting Earth.

  • More than 500,000 people have placed an order or a deposit for SpaceX’s Starlink internet service.
  • The service is currently in a beta stage with more than 10,000 participants.
  • SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit on Tuesday to power the product.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-internet service has raked in more than 500,000 orders and deposits from customers, the company said Tuesday.

“To date, over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink,” said Siva Bharadvaj, a SpaceX space operations engineer, during a broadcast of SpaceX’s latest launch of Starlink satellites. “With every launch, we get closer to connecting more people across the world.”

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the exact figure.

Starlink aims to use its fleet of more than 40,000 satellites to beam high-speed internet down to rural and remote areas where traditional service is poor or not available. SpaceX also plans to deliver internet to ships, planes, cars, and RVs.

Read more: I tried Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite-internet project, for 3 weeks after moving to rural Vermont. It’s a game changer.

The company on Tuesday launched 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit using one of its Falcon 9 rockets, completing its 10th Starlink mission of 2021 and its 26th mission overall. The latest launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites sent into orbit to somewhere around 1,500, though some of those have been deorbited.

SpaceX began offering Starlink as a beta service in October and has since amassed more than 10,000 beta testers, according to a February filing with the Federal Communications Commission. Starlink is currently available to a limited number of users in a given area, and customers can place refundable, $99 deposits to join a waitlist.

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Astronauts have been enjoying a fresh supply vegetables to keep them healthy in space. Two NASA scientists explain how the crop-growing experiments worked.

NASA astronaut, Michael Hopkins, smells “extra dwarf” pak choi plants growing aboard the International Space Station.

  • Astronauts in space recently enjoyed a fresh supply of vegetables, including pak choi plants.
  • Crews turned them into a delicacy by marinating the leaves in garlic paste and soy sauce.
  • NASA scientists told Insider how the crop-production experiments worked.

Of the many challenges astronauts will face in future missions to the Moon and Mars, keeping healthy is one of the most crucial.

But, in recent days, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) found startling solutions to sustain them on long-lasting missions. They recently enjoyed a fresh supply of vegetables due in large part to the efforts of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission commander and Expedition 64 crew member, Michael Hopkins.

Insider spoke to two NASA scientists, Matt Romeyn and Gioia Massa, who work on the crop-production experiments, known as Veg-03Kand VEG-03L. Romeyn is the lead scientist on the experiments and Gioia is a Kennedy Space Centre plant scientist.

Veg-03Kand VEG-03L intended to test a new space crop, “Amara” mustard, also known as Ethiopian kale, and a previously grown crop, “extra dwarf” pak choi. Both yielded successful results. Since their harvest by Hopkins on April 13, the two crops grew for 64 days, the longest duration leafy greens have grown on the space station.

According to Romeyn, the pak choi germinated for so long that the plant began to flower as part of its reproductive growth cycle. This was thanks to Hopkins’ effort in using a small paintbrush to pollinate plant flowers.


They took the approach after Hopkins’ and Romeyn discussed multiple options for the pollination process, including allowing the flowers to self-pollinate themselves.

“We were very happy with his efforts to pollinate those flowers to look at the possibility of producing seeds from them,” said Massa.

She added that this approach “will also be very critical in the future to be able to produce new plants without getting seeds from Earth, so very important for long-duration missions such as a mission to Mars,” and the Moon.

Hopkins’ was hugely interested in crop production, said Romeyn and Massa, and he devoted much of his free time in space to caring for them. This meant monitoring and watering the plants every day, as well as determining the optimal time to harvest them.

“It’s a really challenging thing and so he had to check those plants pretty much every day and monitor their growth and adjust his approaches to growing them,” Massa said.

New methods of harvesting were also among Hopkins’ discoveries in space-crop production. This included a sustainable approach to harvesting, called “cut-and-come-again harvesting”, which entailed harvesting multiple times from the same plant Massa explained.

“He’s been just an incredible gardener and scientist for us,” she added.

Hopkins poses with leaf samples from plants growing on the International Space Station.

Massa said the crew have been eating the pak choi as a side dish, by marinating the leaves in garlic paste and soy sauce, and then heating them up in a small food warmer.

“Delicious, plus the texture or crunch,” Hopkins wrote in experiment notes after tasting the “Amara” mustard plant grown in space.

According to Massa, the crew have also put the leafy greens on tacos or cheeseburgers that they’ve made. In the past, Massa saw crew members enjoy the “Amara” mustard plant as lettuce wraps. “I know the Russians had canned lobster salad and so they made lettuce wraps with the canned lobster salad,” she added.

For now, the astronauts are focusing on the “pick-and-eat salad” crops, which don’t require cooking or processing, because there’s not that much capability to do that type of work on the space station.

Next year, there are plans to grow ‘dwarf tomatoes,’ which Massa likened to cherry tomatoes.

Romeyn explained that NASA scientists on the crop-production project look to grow crops high in Vitamin C and Vitamin K for astronauts in space. This is because research at Johnson Space Centre found the nutritional value of food stored in space ultimately deteriorates.

“The vitamins and the quality can break down for some of the food items,” Massa said.

This is why a lot of the work being done in space agriculture, from a nutritional and supplemental perspective, is to feed crews travelling to and from Mars, Romeyn explained. “We may not have full nutrition without supplementing with the fresh crops,” he said, in regards to a future Mars mission.

NASA officials are certainly hopeful that a future crewed mission to Mars is on the cards. When the agency announced its partnership with SpaceX to return to the moon by 2024, it said in a press release that a trip to the moon would be an important step toward an eventual mission to the Red Planet.

“It’s something I hoped I would see,” said Scott Hubbard, a SpaceX advisor who formerly led NASA’s Mars program, previously told Insider in an interview.

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Vice President Kamala Harris confirms role as new chair of National Space Council, saying she is ‘honored’ to take up the role

kamala harris
Vice President Kamala Harris.

  • The Biden administration has selected Kamala Harris to lead the National Space Council.
  • The council was previously led by former VP Mike Pence during the Trump administration.
  • Harris intends to put her own “personal stamp” on the council, a senior official said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Biden administration on Saturday appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to chair the National Space Council, according to senior administration officials.

Harris confirmed her new position on Twitter, writing: “As I’ve said before: In America, when we shoot for the moon, we plant our flag on it. I am honored to lead our National Space Council.”

According to an official, Kamala intends to put her own personal stamp on the council. Her priorities are focused on policies including the advancement of STEM education, cybersecurity, supporting the long-term sustainability of commercial space activity, and diversity in the workforce, CNN reported.

The council was first created by the executive order by President George H.W. Bush. Following the Bush administration, the council was essentially demobilized until it was reestablished by another executive order from President Donald Trump in 2017, per Politico.

The Biden administration plans to operate the work under that same executive order from 2017 but intends to review it to see if changes are necessary, according to CNN.

Following the announcement, Bill Nelson will be instated as the 14th NASA administrator.

Nelson welcomed the news in a statement released by NASA: “The Vice President is the perfect person to lead the federal government’s space policy, which is increasingly complex, with many nations in space.”

Harris recently showed her interest in US spaceflight when making two calls to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Harris virtually spoke with astronauts, Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins, to mark Women’s History Month, CNN reported.

Commenting on the likely differences between Harris’ and Pence’s approach, an official told CNN: “I’ll just say without drawing too much of a contrast, I think her approach to this is just going to be to get the job done and use this to lead our space policy. And not really focus, perhaps, as much on big displays, but on getting the work done.”

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In a NASA simulation of an asteroid impact, scientists concluded they couldn’t stop a space rock from decimating Europe

asteroid earth fly by
An artist’s illustration of asteroids flying by Earth.

Scientists around the world have been bamboozled this week by a fictitious asteroid heading toward Earth.

A group of experts from US and European space agencies attended a week-long exercise led by NASA in which they faced a hypothetical scenario: An asteroid 35 million miles away was approaching the planet and could hit within six months.

With each passing day of the exercise, the participants learned more about the asteroid’s size, trajectory, and chance of impact. Then they had to cooperate and use their technological knowledge to see if anything could be done to stop the space rock.

The experts fell short. The group determined that none of Earth’s existing technologies could stop the hypothetical asteroid from striking given the six-month timeframe of the simulation. In this alternate reality, the asteroid crashed into eastern Europe.

As far as we know, no asteroids currently pose a threat to Earth in this way. But an estimated two-thirds of asteroids 460 feet in size or bigger – large enough to wreak considerable havoc – remain undiscovered. That’s why NASA and other agencies are attempting to prepare for such a situation.

“These exercises ultimately help the planetary-defense community communicate with each other and with our governments to ensure we are all coordinated should a potential impact threat be identified in the future,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, said in a press release.

6 months is not enough time to prepare for an asteroid impact

The fictitious asteroid in the simulation was called 2021PDC. In NASA’s scenario, it was first “spotted” on April 19, at which time it was thought to have a 5% of hitting our planet on October 20, six months after its discovery date.

But Day 2 of the exercise fast-forwarded to May 2, when new impact-trajectory calculations showed that 2021PDC would almost certainly hit either Europe or northern Africa. The participants in the simulation considered various missions in which spacecraft could try to destroy the asteroid or deflect it off its path.

hypothetical impact
The predicted impact region for 2021 PDC on Day 2 of a NASA-led asteroid-impact simulation.

But they concluded that such missions wouldn’t be able to get off the ground in the short amount of time before the asteroid’s impact.

“If confronted with the 2021PDC hypothetical scenario in real life, we would not be able us to launch any spacecraft on such short notice with current capabilities,” the participants said.

They also considered trying to blow up or disrupt the asteroid using a nuclear explosive device.

“Deploying a nuclear disruption mission could significantly reduce the risk of impact damage,” they found.

Still, the simulation stipulated that 2021PDC could be anywhere from 114 feet to half a mile in size, so the chance that a nuke could make a dent was uncertain.

Day 3 of the exercise skipped ahead to June 30, and Earth’s future looked grim: 2021PDC’s impact trajectory showed it headed for eastern Europe. By Day 4, which fast-forwarded to a week before the asteroid impact, there was a 99% chance the asteroid would hit near the border between Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. The explosion would bring as much energy as a large nuclear bomb.

All that could be done was evacuate the affected regions ahead of time.

Most asteroids fly under the radar, and many are spotted too late

dinosaur asteroid meteor
An artist’s depiction of the moment the Chicxulub asteroid struck the land that is now Mexico 66 million years ago.

It’s tempting to assume that in the real world, astronomers would spot an asteroid akin to 2021PDC with much more notice than six months. But the world’s ability to surveil near-Earth objects (NEOs) is woefully incomplete.

Any space rock with an orbit that takes it within 125 million miles of the sun is considered an NEO. But Johnson said in July that NASA thinks “we’ve only found about a third of the population of asteroids that are out there that could represent an impact hazard to the Earth.”

Of course, humanity hopes to avoid a surprise like the dinosaurs got 65 million years ago, when a 6-mile-wide asteroid crashed into the Earth. But in recent years, scientists have missed plenty of large, dangerous objects that came close.

comet neowise japan
Comet Neowise appears in the sky over Nayoro, Hokkaido, Japan, July 11, 2020.

Comet Neowise, a 3-mile-wide chunk of space ice, passed with 64 million miles of Earth in July. Nobody knew that comet existed until a NASA space telescope discovered it approaching four months prior.

In 2013, a meteor about 65 feet in diameter entered the atmosphere traveling 40,000 mph. It exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, without warning, sending out a shock wave that broke windows and damaged buildings across the region. More than 1,400 people were injured.

asteroid russia Chelyabinsk
The Chelyabinsk meteor streaking across the Russian sky.

And in 2019, a 427-foot-wide, “city-killer” asteroid flew within 45,000 miles of Earth. NASA had almost no warning about it.

That’s because currently, the only way scientists can track an NEO is by pointing one of Earth’s limited number of powerful telescopes in the right direction at the right time.

To address that problem, NASA announced two years ago that it would launch a new space telescope dedicated to watching for hazardous asteroids. That telescope, named the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, along with the European Space Agency’s newly launched Test-Bed Telescope and the Flyeye Telescope that’s being built in Italy, should eventually bolster the number of NEOs we can track.

NASA is testing ways to stymie an asteroid

DART nasa asteroid mission spacecraft
An illustration of the DART spacecraft near an asteroid.

NASA has investigated the options scientists would have if they were to find a dangerous asteroid on a collision course with Earth. These include detonating an explosive device near the space rock, as the exercise participants suggested, or firing lasers that could heat up and vaporize the asteroid enough to change its path.

Another possibility is sending a spacecraft up to slam into an oncoming asteroid, thereby knocking it off its trajectory. This is the strategy NASA is most serious about: Later this year, the agency is scheduled to launch a test of such a technology. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will send a spacecraft to the asteroid Dimorphos and purposefully hit it in the fall of 2022.

NASA hopes that collision will change Dimorphos’s orbit. While that asteroid isn’t a threat to Earth, the mission could prove that redirecting an asteroid is possible with enough lead time.

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