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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 02/12/2013

Why you’re not working on an asteroid shield


Are you an innovator? Then ask yourself, why aren't you working on this? (NASA/JPL-CALTECH / HANDOUT - EPA)

Seriously, why aren’t all of America’s best and brightest working feverishly to keep us from being struck by an asteroid that could wipe a city (or more) from the face of the Earth? A cure for cancer, balancing the nation’s federal budget, and eliminating world hunger would all be rendered moot if an asteroid pulverized the planet.

Granted, as the Post’s Brian Vastag reports, neither a city-destroying nor Earth-ending space rock is on anywhere near an immediate collision course with the planet — for now. (Seriously, don’t panic.) But the anticipated near-miss of asteroid 2012 DA14 by 17,000 miles on Feb. 15 should inspire every innovator to want to figure out how to make Earth asteroid-proof, right?

Now, of course, there are a number of people working on how to keep Earth safe from asteroids and other potentially Earth-threatening debris. There are so many, in fact, that there is an international Planetary Defense Conference in Flagstaff, Ariz., in April.

And, as NASA Spokesman David Agle wrote via an e-mail Monday:

NASA places a high priority on tracking asteroids and protecting our home planet from them. Literally dozens of people are involved with some aspect of our near-Earth object (NEO) research across NASA and its centers. Moreover, there are many people involved in researching and understanding the nature of asteroids and comets, including those that come close to the Earth, as well as those who are trying to find and track them in the first place.
In addition to the resources NASA puts into understanding asteroids, the agency partners with university astronomers, space science institutes, and other agencies across the country that are working to track and better understand these near-Earth objects, often with grants, interagency transfers and other contracts from NASA. This work is heavily automated, using robotic telescopes with specially designed software that automatically scan the night sky, take and process images to detect the moving objects and report data to automated catalog and orbit determination centers, all overseen by well-trained scientist on the ground.
Again, one of our primary responsibilities is to better understand and protect our home planet, which includes the study and mitigation of asteroids and other near-Earth object threats.

All of that is well and good, but this is still not a primary goal for the average technologist. If you plan to study physics or engineering, it’s likely that, after years of schooling, you won’t want to work on something that will (we hope!) not be used during your lifetime.

But that shouldn’t stop somebody from trying.

Meet Bill Ailor.

He is the principal engineer for The Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies (CORDS) at The Aerospace Corporation, and he has taken on the asteroid-protection challenge, becoming interested in the field around 2003-2004.

Asked how many people were working on keeping our planet safe from asteroids and other debris impact, Ailor said that, this year, the Planetary Defense Conference was expecting between 200 and 300 attendees.

“I think there’s really been a problem over the years that people don’t believe this is really a real threat,”said Ailor when asked why more people weren’t working on an asteroid shield or the monitoring of near-Earth objects.

“The little ones are really a problem,” he continued. “So, I think there’s a realization of that now, and I think people are getting interested.”

Funding for such research, until recently, has been low but is rising, according to Ailor, “We’re beginning to see more serious funding.”

In 2004, NASA reported spending between $3-to-4 million per year for near-Earth object (NEO) research. That is now up to $6 million, reports Vastag. (Update: NASA informs us that spending for fiscal year 2011 was $6 million and that per-year spending in fiscal 2012 jumped to $20.5 million.) But compare that with the estimated $209 billion — with a “b” — spent over the life of the space shuttle program.

“We’re really in a shooting gallery here,” said Ailor of the debris around Earth. “We’re surrounded by objects that are just flying by all the time.”

So, before you consider how to create your new social media widget, for the good of mankind, at least ponder whether you want to make your living standing between Earth and future asteroid threats. Please.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

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By  |  08:00 AM ET, 02/12/2013

 
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