The Commonwealth Blog

Saving the world with science

Jan 24, 2014 @ 11:42 AM

By: Mehroz Baig

As someone who’s taken a fair share of science classes, I know that it can be difficult to tie the daily homework assignments of configuring compounds in chemistry or calculating velocity in physics to a broader world perspective. But that’s precisely what science does: it allows us to understand how our world works and use that understanding to shape how we can address global issues.

Science enables us to go to doctors and be treated for diseases, understand changing weather patterns and the influence of human beings on our environment, and send astronauts into space to walk on the moon, among many other things. Science has allowed us to explore our own terrain and that which is millions of miles away. And the most fascinating aspect of scientific discovery is that it keeps going—the potential to find more cures, explore more of our oceans and solar system, and solve the problems that we face today is never ending.

But it takes more than scientific ability to tackle the world’s most pressing concerns: it takes expertise and resources. That’s where Dr. Ed Lu comes into the picture. Lu, a former NASA astronaut who is the CEO and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, is on a mission to literally save the world. Dr. Lu spoke at the Commonwealth Club about his project to build an infrared telescope that can go out into space, detect asteroids and track them. His reason for taking on this project was because no one else was doing it. “Our current strategy for dealing with asteroid impacts is luck,” he said. “I think that’s unacceptable.”

Dr. Lu noted that as of today, we have the capability to stop asteroids from hitting the Earth, but without the technology in place to track and detect them as they get closer, we can’t do anything to stop them. He explained that once we know the location and speed of an asteroid, it’s fairly simple to ensure that it won’t hit: if we have about a decade’s notice of an impact between an asteroid and our planet, all we have to do is shift the asteroid’s trajectory by nudging it, by one millimeter per second, or as Dr. Lu put it, “the speed that an ant walks.”

This isn’t new territory. NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005 included hitting a comet. Though the objective for that mission was to gather more information about comets, the same technology can be applied to reorient asteroids. The only problem is that we have to know where they are. According to Dr. Lu, currently less than one percent of the asteroids in space are being tracked. That’s the problem he’s hoping to solve. Once information on asteroid location and speed is available, more can be done to prepare for their impending arrival. And all this happens over many years: Dr. Lu mentioned that if an asteroid were coming toward the Earth, we could have as much as a 10-year notice before its potential impact. That’s enough time to put together a mission to divert its path.

Dr. Lu is adamant that asteroid impacts are “the only global natural disaster that we know how to prevent.” And they’re going to continue happening. Most recently, as the world was celebrating entering a new year, a small asteroid named 2014 AA, was spotted close to the Earth and is thought to have made impact over the Atlantic Ocean. Dr. Lu noted in his talk that most of the Earth’s surface consists of oceans, so if an asteroid comes into the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s more likely that it will hit water. But can we really afford to take that risk? Dr. Lu doesn’t think so. His belief is, “Let’s not go the way of the dinosaurs because we didn’t bother looking.”