It’s fair to say that Hollywood blockbusters have overhyped the potential of an Earth-ending asteroid collision, but there is some truth to those natural disaster stories.
The Solar System Dynamics group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab employs physicists like Marina Brozović to keep an eye on the many near-Earth objects that could potentially come in contact with the planet. Brozović spoke with WIRED about her work, and she called her division “flight control for the solar system.”
Brozović believes the team—formed at the request of Congress—has identified about 95 percent of near-Earth asteroids with a diameter greater than one kilometer. She tells WIRED that there are likely billions of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. These objects become so-called near-Earth asteroids when they’re nudged to the inner solar system by gravitational forces.
Asteroids have played a huge role in the development of Earth—from delivering organic material to causing mass extinctions around 66 million years ago. More recently, in February of 2013, an unexpected 17-meter asteroid exploded about 100,000 feet above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The force of the explosion injured about 1200 people, and cost an estimated 1 billion rubles in damage.
Still, Brozović says that if an asteroid was going to collide with Earth, we’d likely spot it years ahead of time and be able to prepare a deflection mission. (See, we told you there was a nugget of truth in the silver screen.)
If you’re hungry for some up-close near-Earth asteroid action, the time is nigh: Asteroid 2013 TX68 will be making its closest approach on March 5. And in the meantime, head over to WIRED to hear Brozović talk about Carl Sagan and the death of the dinosaurs.
Images via NASA.