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Aphelion Editorial 074

September 2003

by Dan L. Hollifield

The Usual Rant from the Aphelion Senior Editor

Oh friends, there are all sorts of strange goings on these days. We're living in interesting times. Me? I think I'm going to start stockpiling MREs and gunpowder for my muzzle loader. Why? Forget terrorists and politics, the universe is getting dangerous out there! We're in the middle of the sunspot cycle for one thing, and the sun only half-flipped its magnetic field for that reason, rather than the full reversal that is normal. So we're getting measurably more fast moving, high energy particles, cosmic dust, and other such things streaming into the Solar System because the Sun isn't protecting us as much. If real life were a comic book, most of us would be trying on spandex right now. But since Earth has other protections, not just the Sun's magnetic field and the solar wind, no one is going to become their friendly neighborhood superhero anytime soon. (Even though someone has just invented a gamma-ray bomb that works on the same principle as a neutron bomb, but no one named Banner is connected with the project. I checked!) But I hope the ISS has good shielding, nevertheless.

Another good thing, that kind of counteracts that last bit a little, we have an Ion drive space probe that is going to reach the moon about 16 months after it starts. That's right, 16 months. Its a low thrust, solar powered experiment that could pave the way for better probes out into the asteroid belt and the outer solar system. Cheap, durable, efficient. In the meantime, another group is working on solar sail technology. That's exciting! The best plans I've seen for manned exploration of the solar system would be much more doable with solar sails. Or some sort of nuclear propulsion. And yet another group is working on getting thrust from ground-based lasers. Talk about leave your engine at home! This works like the Orion project, but on a much smaller scale and without using nuclear warheads as reaction mass. The probe tosses out material that the laser vaporises to produce thrust. Neat stuff! I've seen a small scale test version actually fly on one of the science channels on TV. But these folks ought to check in with the solar sail people, because there would be a point where a ground-based laser would give a sail a push without burning holes in it. And there is yet another group that is working internationally on using Russian subs and disarmed surplus ICBMs to launch space probes at sea, without all that costly gantry and launch pad. And the Russians still have some heavy-lift boosters we can use for normal ground launches, too. Furthermore, it seems like almost everyone has these pesky nukes that they want to safely get rid of...

Why am I glad to hear about all this new and old technology being developed and put to use? Because my life may be in danger soon, and this stuff- and more besides -may just save me from a lifetime as an unpaid extra in a "Road Warrior" movie. To wit: I found the following news item to be of particular interest when it was posted in one of the mailing lists of which I'm a member. The following is quoted exactly:

From the BBC

Asteroid warning for 2014
The British agency responsible for identifying potentially hazardous
asteroids says US astronomers are warning of a possible collision in 2014.

The UK Government's Near Earth Object Centre says American astronomers have
discovered a large, fast-approaching asteroid that could hit the Earth on
21 March, 2014.

But they add the chances of it doing so are just one in 909,000.

What is more, any risk of an impact is likely to decrease as further data
is gathered, they say.

Credible threat

The BBC's science correspondent Christine McGourty says that, although the
chances this asteroid will hit the Earth are slim, it is considered worth
monitoring due to its sheer size and velocity.

The rock is said to measure approximately two thirds of a mile across -
only one tenth of the size of the meteor thought to have wiped out the
dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It is traveling at a speed of about 20 miles per second.

"In theory such an asteroid could cause devastation across an entire
continent," Christine McGourty says.

It has been labeled "2003 QQ 47" and astronomers will be monitoring it
closely for the next two months.
Story from BBC NEWS:


But why would all that technology I mentioned at the beginning prove out to be useful in preventing an asteroid or comet impact? Well, you go out to the thing well ahead of time and try to change its orbit so that it misses. You'll need heavy lift boosters to get there in time, but you can start sending other supplies using low-thrust ion engines to cheaply coast stuff along to where you plan to meet the asteroid.There are lots of possibilities, like: anchor a solar sail to one side and change the orbit by hitting the sail with lasers, launch some nukes at it designed to go off above the surface and push it aside, boil one side of it with lasers, or lasers and nukes, and use the boiling away of the surface as thrust to nudge it aside. (That actually works better with comets than asteroids, but the principle is the same.) Or lasers, nukes, and the solar sail... Whatever it takes. Just blowing it into bits wouldn't work, because the bits would still hit us, and that could wind up being even worse than getting hit by one big chunk. But whatever we do we're going to have to plan ahead and use what we've already got or can whip up really quick to do the job- If it turns out that the thing isn't going to miss after all. And lets face it, it probably will miss. But the possibility is real that Earth will be hit by some stray object, sooner or later. So you can see that mankind just might have to beat their swords into asteroid-deflecting technology in the near future. And with all apologies to Hollywood, it wouldn't be as easy as the movies make it look. So what are you going to do? Keep yourself informed, check out the story link above, any links on the subject that the BBC may provide from their page, Google the asteroid number, and remember that as time goes by and better measurements are made the astronomers will be better able to tell just how close this rock will really come. Don't panic, but don't bury your head in the sand, either. You are still much more likely to be killed in an auto accident or airplane crash than by an asteroid. But the trouble is that with an asteroid, we all go at the same time. Like I said, I'm going to stock up on stuff. If nothing happens, I'll be set for camping gear, hunting supplies, and fishing tackle for several years to come. And if you really want an insight into the possibilities of comet or asteroid impacts, go out and get yourself a copy of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's classic novel "Lucifer's Hammer" which is chock-full of real science as well as wonderful writing.

Thanks for your time,


I now return you to your regularly scheduled reading...


2003 Dan L. Hollifield

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