It’s the ultimate doomsday scenario: out of nowhere, an undetected asteroid appears in space, on a collision course with earth. We know nothing of it until an explosion erupts on some random part of the globe. This explosion may even be big enough to end all life on Earth! It’s not just the stuff of science fiction: it’s happened before. Scientists believe a meteorite striking the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico drove the dinosaurs to extinction 63 million years ago.
That was a long time ago. But today, about once a year an asteroid the size of a car makes a fireball in our planet’s atmosphere. Luckily, it burns up without hitting the surface. And about once in 2,000 years, a huge meteoroid creates a nuclear-scale explosion on the planet. These meteoroids can be as big as a football stadium! Detecting asteroids and defending our planet from them is a project so big it requires cooperation on an international scale. China’s new asteroid-hunting project promises to be a major part of our emerging planetary defense network.
- A car-sized meteor hits the Earth’s atmosphere once a year. A stadium-sized one hits the planet’s surface with a nuclear-scale explosion about once every 2,000 years.
- Detecting and defending against objects falling from space is a global problem that requires global scientific cooperation.
- Asteroids, comets, and meteors are different types of celestial bodies. But any of them can potentially strike the earth’s surface with devastating results.
- China is currently building a massive radar facility able to produce high-resolution images of asteroids and other deep-space objects.
- China has a variety of other advanced space projects in the works. These include a space station, space telescope, and missions to the Moon and Mars.
- Other nations and private entities are also doing concentrated work to discover means of detecting, deflecting, or destroying asteroids.
What’s Floating Around Up There?
You’ve no doubt heard several different terms for big space rocks. They describe different objects, but any one of them could strike the Earth with devastating results.
Asteroids are small, rocky and metallic objects that orbit the sun. They can range in diameter from 30 feet to over 500 miles. Most of them float in a region called the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But there are patches of them in other parts of the solar system as well. These include in the path of Earth and some of the other planets. They are thought to be leftover material that never coalesced into a planet. They could also be the result of a long-lost planet that was destroyed in a celestial collision.
Just like asteroids, comets are small bodies that orbit the sun, but unlike them, they are made of ice and dust, not rock and metal. Comets originate in a region of the solar system called the Oort Cloud, far beyond the orbit of the outermost planets. They have elliptical orbits that periodically bring them close to the Sun before gravity slingshots them billions of miles back to where they came from. The heat of the sun starts vaporizing the material on the surface so that the comet trails a long tail of glowing dust that can often be seen with the naked eye even when the comet is far away from the Earth.
Meteors and Meteorites
A meteor is a piece of a comet or asteroid that burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Falling objects moving quickly through the atmosphere heat up from resistance with air molecules, and, if the object is small enough, vaporize completely without hitting the ground. These are often colloquially called “fireballs” or “shooting stars.” When a meteor is large enough to survive the furnace of the atmosphere and strike the planet’s surface, it is called a meteorite.
China’s New Asteroid-Hunting Project
These space threats are the target of China’s new deep space observation radar, called the “China Compound Eye” under construction in the southwestern part of the state. The compound eyes of insects inspired the facility’s concept. Their eyes coordinate input from multiple small lenses to create a picture. Each radar unit in the project has its own antenna, transmitter, and receiver. Computers coordinate them to form detailed images. The China Compound Eye will take high-resolution images of asteroids and other deep-space objects. It will be the most far-reaching radar facility in the world.
The project is currently in the second phase of construction. They aim to complete it in 2025. At that point, the facility will cover nearly 50 acres and will include 25 high-resolution radars, each about 98 feet in diameter. After phase three of the project, it will include hundreds of radars with a range of 93 million miles.
Check out the video link below to see China’s new asteroid-hunting project for yourself.
Other Chinese Space Projects
China is rapidly developing advanced technology for space exploration. Here are some of its recent projects:
- Tiangong Space Station – China’s first space station will have three main modules that will bve used for scientific experiments and astronaut training.
- Chang’e lunar program – Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, this program has already landed on the moon and returned samples to earth. Ultimately, the program seeks to establish a base on the Moon.
- Mars mission – In July 2020, China had a mission to Mars called Tianwen-1, which included an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. The mission successfully landed on the planet’s surface on May 14, 2021, making China only the second country in the world to land on Mars.
- Beidou Navigation System – This is a competitor to the United States’ GPS satellite system to provide global navigation assistance. It is now fully operational.
- Xuntian Telescope – China plans to launch a space telescope in 2024 that will have a field of view 300-350 times larger than the U.S. Hubble Space Telescope. It will make astronomical observations and study dark matter.
What Are Other Countries Doing to Defend Against Asteroids?
China’s new asteroid-hunting project is not the only effort to defend the planet from killer asteroids. Here are a few examples of efforts other countries are making:
- NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office – A program to detect and track near-Earth objects. Additionally, they strategize ways to deflect or destroy the ones that threaten the Earth.
- Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) – This is a combined project of NASA and the European Space Agency. They seek to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to test deflection methods.
- Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – A NASA mission completed in September 2022. It successfully changed the orbit of Dimorphos, a moon orbiting a large asteroid named Didymos.
- NEOShield-2 – The European project studies kinetic and nuclear devices and gravity tractors. They look at potential ways to divert an asteroid from a dangerous orbit.
- B612 Sentinel – A private project to launch a space telescope. This telescope would track and identify 90% of near-Earth asteroids larger than 140 meters in diameter within 10 years.
Are you disturbed that all those science fiction movies about killer asteroids have basis in fact? Maybe you’re reassured to know that all the crazy space-age defense technology in those movies is also becoming fact today.
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