Close Encounters of the Asteroid Kind

Pipestone Flyer

As one eyes the night skies in the Leduc-Wetaskiwin area, the wide prairie star-scape appears to move as placidly and predictably as it has for millennia. However, lurking in the inky backdrop of deep space are always little surprises. One of these surprises, a chunk of rock the size of Commonwealth Stadium called Asteroid 2013 RL6, passed by our world on June 9, four times closer than the moon is to us. In celestial terms, it was spitting distance.

    There has been a spate of near-planet fly-pasts recently. A boulder that measured 2.8 kilometers wide, large enough to host its own moon, passed us by just the week before. It is called Asteroid 2013 QE2 (no relation to the monarch) and is expected back in about two hundred years. 

    Prior to that, there was a pair of surprises in February. A meteorite exploded above Russia injuring 1500 people. On that same day, another slab of stone whizzed by at a proximity closer than our communication satellites travel; a mere 27,700 kilometers up.

    Though collisions with Earth are rare, thankfully, they do occur and not just in faraway places. In 2007, a hunter in Woodlands County, near Whitecourt, discovered a meteorite impact crater which has now become a protected area. The close proximity to our own backyards does bring the concern into focus for us all. It is only natural to wonder what steps have been made to deal with this potentially Earth-shaking phenomenon.

    In fact, there has been a lot of attention to this problem from the scientific community. Canada made a huge contribution to the program when last February, the Department of National Defence deployed a new satellite to help monitor incoming extra-planetary projectiles. It will be added to the NASA system already in place and will provide better monitoring than was available in the past. The satellite called NEOSSat, for Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, is designed to detect Atens, which are asteroids that orbit the sun on the same elliptical plane that our own planet does. These asteroids are not visible to ground-based monitoring technology due to the interference from sunlight being scattered in the atmosphere.

    After any threatening asteroids are located, it is hoped they will be able to develop plans to nudge the trajectory of the object, either with lasers or hydrogen bombs to divert it from its dangerous path. One such spacefarer on a possible collision trajectory is called Apophis. Its next return is slated for 2029 but experts have ruled out a collision. They do fear, however, that the fly-by will be so close, it may change the trajectory enough to make it a threat in 2036.

    It is certainly something to think about as one gazes into our local night sky.