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Screen capture from the video “Dealing With Asteroids and Other Space Hazards”

Screen capture from the video “Dealing With Asteroids and Other Space Hazards” from the European Space Agency

STEM in Context

Dealing with Asteroids and Other Space Hazards

Let's Talk Science

Summary

Find out how asteroids, space debris, and cosmic radiation can be dangerous, and how to monitor them and protect ourselves from these space hazards.
Dealing With Asteroids and Other Space Hazards (2014) by the European Space Agency (3:44 min.).

In February of 2013, a meteor hurtled towards the region of Chelyabinsk, Russia. The meteor weighed about 10 tonnes! Fortunately, it broke into many pieces as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. But it was not totally harmless. About 950 people were hurt by the falling debris. Even more people suffered property damage. This meteor event was not considered catastrophic. It did not even produce an impact crater. But it did make the world aware of the potential threat of a meteorite strike.   

What is an asteroid?

An asteroid is a piece of space rock in orbit around the Sun. A meteoroid is a small piece of an asteroid (1 metre or less in diameter) traveling in outer space. A meteor is an asteroid or meteoroid that strikes the Earth’s atmosphere. A meteor that does not burn up in the atmosphere and makes it to Earth’s surface is called a meteorite. 

How can we protect Earth from asteroids? 

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee is an alliance of 13 of the major national space agencies. Their goal is to devise methods to protect people from potential threats from space. The alliance monitors space weather. It also tracks near-Earth objects and other potentially harmful space debris

There are two different ways to deflect asteroids approaching Earth. The first is to deflect the asteroid with a kinetic impact technique. An example of this is NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). NASA plans to launch DART in 2021 to redirect the asteroid Didymos. DART will do this by crashing into Didymos’ moonlet. A moonlet is a small body orbiting a primary body, a little like a small moon.

Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid Didymos. Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radar will measure the change in the moonlet’s orbit around the asteroid
Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid Didymos (Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab).

 

The second method is to alter the path of an asteroid with a gravity tractor. That’s a large spacecraft that would fly alongside an asteroid for years, or even decades, to slowly divert its path so that it doesn’t hit Earth.   

Why do scientists monitor space debris?

Scientists aren’t only concerned about asteroid impacts with Earth. They also track and monitor all matter of space debris. They make sure space debris don’t collide with and damage important satellites. This is because damage to satellites can take many years and many millions of dollars to replace. The US military is currently tracking about 20 000 space objects. They have also catalogued a further 20 000 objects since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. 

Did you know?

Scientists estimate that approximately 500 000 pieces of space debris larger than a marble are currently orbiting Earth. Approximately 20 000 of these pieces may be larger than a softball!  

What is space weather? 

Scientists also monitor space weather. Space weather refers to the physical processes on the surface of the Sun that can impact Earth. For example, scientists monitor solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Solar flares consist of intense bursts of radiation. CMEs consist of large explosions of overheated plasma. Both of these phenomena produce solar radiation, which is responsible for much of the radiation that we experience here on Earth.  

Solar flare image taken June 25, 2015 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory
Solar flare image taken June 25, 2015 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (Source: NASA/SDO [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

 

You might not realize it, but there’s a lot going on in space. Fortunately, scientists are always keeping the best interest of Earth in mind!  

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Does it worry you that an asteroid could crash into the Earth? Why or why not? 
  • What would you do if you found out a large meteorite impact was about to occur in your region of Canada? 
Connecting and Relating
  • Does it worry you that an asteroid could crash into the Earth? Why or why not? 
  • What would you do if you found out a large meteorite impact was about to occur in your region of Canada? 
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Is space exploration creating more problems than it is solving for people on Earth? Explain you answer.
  • Why is space debris and international issue? How is this issue being managed? 
  • Is it worth the investment (e.g. research, monitoring efforts, money, time, physical resources, etc.) to be prepared to deflect asteroids from Earth? Explain.  
  • What are the impacts of the increasing space junk problem on science, technology, society and the environment?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Is space exploration creating more problems than it is solving for people on Earth? Explain you answer.
  • Why is space debris and international issue? How is this issue being managed? 
  • Is it worth the investment (e.g. research, monitoring efforts, money, time, physical resources, etc.) to be prepared to deflect asteroids from Earth? Explain.  
  • What are the impacts of the increasing space junk problem on science, technology, society and the environment?
Exploring Concepts
  • What is the difference between a meteor and an asteroid?
  • Describe the methods that have been devised to divert asteroids from impacting with Earth? 
  • What activities are ongoing to track space debris and asteroids?   
  • How do satellites contribute to the amount of debris in space? Why is the junk up in space a problem for people on Earth?
  • Why is space weather constantly monitored? 
  • Conduct additional research to explore the specific effects that solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can cause on Earth. 
Exploring Concepts
  • What is the difference between a meteor and an asteroid?
  • Describe the methods that have been devised to divert asteroids from impacting with Earth? 
  • What activities are ongoing to track space debris and asteroids?   
  • How do satellites contribute to the amount of debris in space? Why is the junk up in space a problem for people on Earth?
  • Why is space weather constantly monitored? 
  • Conduct additional research to explore the specific effects that solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can cause on Earth. 
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Deflection of asteroids is still only a theory. What will it take to change this theory into fact? 
  • What future careers are possible as a result of the hazards of increasing space junk? 
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Deflection of asteroids is still only a theory. What will it take to change this theory into fact? 
  • What future careers are possible as a result of the hazards of increasing space junk? 
Media Literacy
  • Imagine you are working for a national news agency and you have just found out that an asteroid is headed for Earth and is on a path to impact somewhere in a 50 km area surrounding your community.  Develop an emergency media plan to quickly notify the local community and other Canadians of the impending meteorite impact event. 
Media Literacy
  • Imagine you are working for a national news agency and you have just found out that an asteroid is headed for Earth and is on a path to impact somewhere in a 50 km area surrounding your community.  Develop an emergency media plan to quickly notify the local community and other Canadians of the impending meteorite impact event. 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This video and article can be used to support teaching and learning of Space Science, Space and Physics related to asteroids, satellites and solar radiation. Concepts introduced include asteroid, satellites, space weather, solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar radiation. 
  • After viewing the video and reading the article, teachers could have students complete a Pros & Cons learning strategy to consider the positive and negative issues related to preparing to deflect an asteroid from hitting Earth. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To have students consolidate understanding of different types of space weather, teachers could have students do additional research using the links provided and complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy. Ready-to-use Concept Definition Web reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This video and article can be used to support teaching and learning of Space Science, Space and Physics related to asteroids, satellites and solar radiation. Concepts introduced include asteroid, satellites, space weather, solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar radiation. 
  • After viewing the video and reading the article, teachers could have students complete a Pros & Cons learning strategy to consider the positive and negative issues related to preparing to deflect an asteroid from hitting Earth. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To have students consolidate understanding of different types of space weather, teachers could have students do additional research using the links provided and complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy. Ready-to-use Concept Definition Web reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 

Learn more

What’s the Difference Between a Comet, Asteroid and Meteor? (2013) 

Article on Universe Today by Nancy Atkinson containing an infographic that explains the difference between a comet, asteroid, meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite. 

Space Weather Canada (2019) 

A page from Natural Resources Canada's Space Weather Canada. This is the branch of the government agency that tracks and monitors space weather that impacts Canada; includes data, maps, forecasts, and additional information.

References

Aerospace. (2018, November 14). Space debris and space traffic management.

Dunbar, B. (2017, August 7). Space debris and human spacecraft. NASA.

Wall, M. (2011, November 7). Deflecting killer asteroids away from earth: How we could do it. Space.com.