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Scientists Gather for Cosmic Impact

The notion of an asteroid hurtling toward earth and wreaking havoc on our planet might seem like the plot in a Hollywood movie, but to scientists attending the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Conference on Planetary Defense, the idea isn’t so far-fetched.

“A recent impact air burst near Chelyabinsk, Russia, reminded the world that near-Earth asteroids are a serious hazard,” said Dr. David Kring of the Center for Lunar Science & Exploration in Houston.

The impact Dr. Kring speaks of left central Russia in shock after a meteorite exploded sending shards of space rock into the city’s streets, causing massive amounts of damage and injuring more than 1,000 people. Now, astronomers, engineers and policy makers from more than 20 countries will meet in Flagstaff at the 3rd Annual Conference on Planetary Defense, to discuss asteroid impact hazards to Earth and possible ways to avoid such collisions.

“The goal [of the conference] is for scientists and engineers to develop a plan that the nations of the world can support and financially back when a threat is discovered,” said Northern Arizona University’s Space Grant Program Director Dr. Nadine Barlow. “Large impacts can dramatically affect global climate, ejecting enough material into the atmosphere to dramatically reduce the amount of sunlight that makes it to the Earth’s surface, and even altering the composition of the atmosphere. Impacts into oceans not only eject large amounts of steam into the atmosphere, which can increase global warming, but also the tsunamis created by the impact would ravage coastal cities…impacts are a global threat.”

Fortunately, Flagstaff provides the ideal setting for these researchers to convene as it is home to both Lowell Observatory and Meteor Crater. These two world-class facilities have already played key roles in studying near-Earth asteroids and their effects.

“Meteor Crater is the world’s best preserved and most dramatic near-Earth asteroid (NEA) impact site,” said Dr. Kring. “It is essential that scientists involved in the assessment of future NEA hazards understand the consequences of the Meteor Crater event and see the damage it caused. Although the Meteor Crater event happened in the geologic past, we now understand that a similar-size event today could obliterate a modern city.”

With the exception of the event near Chelyabinsk, Russia, the actual occurrence of an asteroid colliding with Earth and causing major destruction is considered extremely rare. But as Dr. David Trilling of NAU’s Physics and Astronomy Department points out, preparation for such an event is still vital.

“First responders and emergency management people are now realizing that they need to have plans in place,” said Dr. Trilling. “With an impact, you might have no warning – or a few hours, or a few days. In each case, a different response is warranted. Imagine trying to evacuate Los Angeles with 24 hours notice!”

Alongside scientists, top administrators from NASA and FEMA, as well as their international equivalents, will be attending the conference. Further evidence, says Dr. Trilling, that governments and their agencies are realizing just how important this topic has become.

“It is Congress that directed NASA to initiate its current program to discover, catalog and track asteroids,” said Marcia Smith, a space policy analyst. “Physics determines if an asteroid or comet threatens the Earth. It’s up to Earth’s policymakers – in the U.S. and elsewhere – to decide what to do about it.” FBN


The IAA Planetary Defense Conference, April 15-19, is being conducted at the High Country Conference Center in Flagstaff.

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