The United Nations has announced the birth of a new solar system-wide holiday -from this day forward, June 30th will forever be known as International Asteroid Day.
Aimed at raising the profile of the global hazard of asteroid impact, along with the work being carried out by various space agencies to thwart such a scenario, International Asteroid Day was officially proclaimed by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and endorsed by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
“We founded the annual event to raise awareness of the asteroid threat and opportunity to unite the human species behind a simple goal: Protect our planet from asteroid impacts,” reads a statement from the Asteroid Day co-founders, who include Apollo 9 astronaut, Rusty Schweickart, filmmaker Grig Richters and astrophysicist and legendary guitarist from the band Queen, Brian May.
May says there is a need for coordinated action on the topic of averting a potential asteroid collision.
“The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it became that the human race has been living on borrowed time,” he says. His sentiment is echoed by physicist Stephen Hawking, a supporter of Asteroid Day, who has said, “One of the major threats to intelligent life in our universe is the high probability of an asteroid colliding with inhabited planets.”
Just how much of a threat to life on Earth are asteroids? Astronomers have a long way to go before charting the paths of all the potentially threatening asteroids, but by current count, they have located over 1,700 near-Earth objects that have been branded as hazardous due to their orbits, with about four more being discovered every day.
A variety of organizations are currently working on locating (and then helping to deflect) hazardous asteroids, including the European Space Agency, whose Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) is preparing to launch in 2020 to travel to the asteroid Didymos and its smaller moon. AIM plans to send a probe – excitingly called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) right at the Didymos moon to try to redirect its orbit.
NASA is also involved in an asteroid mission, having launched its OSIRIS-REx space probe earlier this year. OSIRIS is on course for the asteroid Bennu, which it will meet up with in 2018, whereupon it will orbit the space rock in preparation for a snatch-n-grab manoeuvre where it will hover close to Bennu’s surface and send down a robotic arm to collect rock samples to take back to Earth.
OSIRIS-REx is supported by the Canadian Space Agency, whose laser altimeter will serve to map the surface of Bennu once the OSIRIS spacecraft reaches the asteroid. If successful, the mission will bring back to Canada its first ever samples from an asteroid.
Asteroid Day was chosen to fall on June 30th to mark the anniversary of the largest asteroid impact in recorded history, the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia. The “relatively small” asteroid, estimated to be about 40 metres across, blew up on the morning of June 30 at an estimated height of five to ten kilometres above the ground and destroyed 2,000 square kilometres of forest. Fortunately, the area was unpopulated and no human casualties were recorded.
“It is the only natural disaster we know how to prevent if we work together towards a global solution,” say Asteroid Day’s co-founders.