We did warn you! Now, how about that space laser
FOR decades, scientists have been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet. But warnings that they lacked the tools to detect the most serious threats were largely ignored.
No more. The meteor that rattled Siberia on Friday, injuring hundreds of people and traumatising thousands, has suddenly brought new life to efforts to deploy adequate detection tools, in particular work on a space telescope that would scan the solar system for dangers.
A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw Friday's shock wave as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more. ''Wouldn't it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren't looking?'' said Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and Google executive who leads the detection effort. ''This is a wake-up call from space. We've got to pay attention to what's out there.''
Friday's close approach to Earth of an asteroid named 2012 DA14, as well as the Russian event, prompted thousands of hits to the foundation's website and Twitter account, said Diane Murphy, a spokeswoman for the group.
''Everybody is calling,'' she said. ''They see us as the solution. They're saying, 'When are you going to have the telescope up?' ''
Astronomers know of no asteroids or comets that represent a major threat to the planet. But NASA estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of the big dangers have been discovered.
Dr Lu's group, called the B612 Foundation after the imaginary asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's novella The Little Prince, is one team of several pursuing ways to ward off extraterrestrial threats.
''Our job is to be the first line of defence, and we take that very seriously,'' James Green, the director of planetary science at NASA headquarters, said after the Russian strike.
Two California scientists have a new proposal to deploy an array of lasers that could vaporise asteroids.
''You don't blow up an asteroid like the Death Star in Star Wars, where you push a button and the planet explodes. You basically take a blowtorch to it in the form of a laser beam and you begin to evaporate it,'' said Philip Lubin, a cosmologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and one of the two scientists behind the project.
NEW YORK TIMES, LOS ANGELES TIMES