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Asteroids, solar storms and space junk: Senators hear of threats

March 22, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • Asteroids: Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, chair of the B612 Foundation, explains plans to launch a Sentinel spacecraft in 2018 to search out asteroids that could threaten Earth. Lu spoke at a Senate subcommittee hearing convened to discuss space-borne threats to human civilization.
Asteroids: Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, chair of the B612 Foundation, explains… (U.S. Senate Committee on…)

Bruce Willis and his asteroid-fighting abilities in “Armageddon” may have been the star of a Senate hearing this week, but giant space rocks are only one of the many dangers that human civilization must tackle, researchers said on Capitol Hill.

Our complex web of technology is at risk on an everyday basis, said Richard DalBello, a vice president at Intelsat General and a witness at the subcommittee hearing on space threats.  

“We have to daily deal with a range of threats,” he said. “Radio frequency interference -- many times it’s accidental and sometimes intentional -- space debris and other challenges of spaceflight, cyber attacks, solar weather, space systems reliability,” he rattled off. 

Space junk made its own headlines earlier this year when a piece of Chinese orbital debris smashed into an unlucky Russian satellite. And commercial passenger planes regularly change course whenever a solar storm threatens to swamp the Earth.

Asteroids may be on the forefront of Congress’ mind after a meteor exploded over Russia  last month and injured roughly 1,000 in Siberia – which is perhaps why former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, chair of the B612 Foundation that plans to launch an asteroid-tracking space telescope named Sentinel in 2018, was invited to speak at the hearing. 

A kilometer-sized asteroid, Lu told subcommittee chair Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), "is likely to end human civilization."

Researchers are working on ways to reduce such space-borne risks: A paper being published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets assesses the risks of various systems to remove such orbital debris.

And as I wrote earlier, a pair of California scientists has come up with a laser-shooting spacecraft that could annihilate asteroids.

For now, though, that laser-shooting spacecraft remains as much fiction as Bruce Willis’s space-rock-splitting bomb.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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