Blast it or paint it: Deadly asteroid bounds towards Earth out of the blue

To avert a new apocalypse – this time set for February 2013 – scientists suggest confronting asteroid 2012 DA14 with either paint, or big guns. The tough part of either scheme is that time has long run out to build a spaceship for any operation.

NASA confirms the 60-meter (197-feet) asteroid, spotted by Spanish stargazers in February, has a good chance of colliding with Earth in eleven months.

The rock's closest approach to the planet is scheduled for February 15, 2013, when the distance between the planet and space wanderer will be under 27,000 km (16,700 miles). This is lower than the geosynchronous orbit kept by the Google Maps satellite.

Fireworks and watercolors
With the asteroid zooming that low, it will be too late to do anything with it besides trying to predict its final destination and the consequences of impact.

A spaceship is needed, experts agree. It could shoot the rock down or just crash into it, either breaking the asteroid into debris or throwing it off course.

“We could paint it,” says NASA expert David Dunham.

Paint would affect the asteroid's ability to reflect sunlight, changing its temperature and altering its spin. The asteroid would stalk off its current course, but this could also make the boulder even more dangerous when it comes back in 2056, Aleksandr Devaytkin, the head of the observatory in Russia's Pulkovo, told Izvestia.

Spaceship impossible?
Whatever the mission, building a spaceship to deal with 2012 DA14 will take two years – at least.

The asteroid has proven a bitter discovery. It has been circling in orbit for three years already, crossing Earth's path several times, says space analyst Sergey Naroenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences. It seems that spotting danger from outer space is still the area where mere chance reigns, while asteroid defense systems exist only in drafts.

Still, prospects of meeting 2012 DA14 are not all doom and gloom.

“The asteroid may split into pieces entering the atmosphere. In this case, most part of it will never reach the planet's surface,” remarks Dunham.

But if the entire asteroid is to crash into the planet, the impact will be as hard as in the Tunguska blast, which in 1908 knocked down trees over a total area of 2,150 sq km (830 sq miles) in Siberia. This is almost the size of Luxembourg. In today's case, the destination of the asteroid is yet to be determined.

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