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On a wet or cold public holiday when there is not much to do and the family is entombed for the duration a hapless parent might pick up the TV remote in the forlorn hope that at least one TV company has scheduled “Something worth watching”.  Mindlessly flicking across every channel that the TV has to offer the TV remote comes upon that stalwart of entertainment, “The Disaster Movie”. It was not necessarily what the family was looking for but it will do for now. One by one the interest gathers an audience, it is the sort of film that can only be described as “Far fetched”, a fantasy based on what might happen if…………  Although they tuned in late and missed the first ten minutes of the film they are “Gripped” by the unfolding drama, an hour or so passes and cautiously the holder of the remote control glances at his or her watch, there is another half hour of the film left and as far as they can see everything has happed and catastrophe looms on the horizon but there is more to come, the hero whom ever they are has just thirty minutes to save the day and ensure that further disaster movies can be made. Of course they do it, they always do and no matter whether the initial scenario included, Earthquakes, Fire, Flood, Meteorites, Asteroids, Tidal waves, Famine, Killer viruses, Tornado’s or Hurricanes somehow the world survived and the hero “got the girl”. The holder of the remote flicks to another channel as the credits begins to roll with the sage like words, “It was a bit fanciful or it could never happen.  Well maybe it could, maybe there are others that think it might and maybe they are laying plans right now to avert such disasters in the future.

Around Christmas 2004 whilst the worlds TV stations were bringing the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami to our living rooms the final touches were being put into place for a mission that was to bring the realms of science fantasy nearer to science fact. It was a space mission but one bent on the deliberate intention of hitting a comet travelling at 24000 mph behind a planet, Jupiter. The object of the exercise was to determine the structure of the object so that if the earth were threatened at sometime in the future then the information gained would provide a possible means for its destruction. The mission was a success and though the final decent of the “Deep Impact” mission was not seen by anyone on earth the Hubble telescope and various other surveillance equipment recorded the moment and gathered the harvest of information.

The pictures that appear on TV of the vastness of space never show the debris that pervades the blackness between planets or even galaxies but it is there. It is probably the biggest obstacle to interstellar travel that exists. Some of the debris floating around in the eons of space is no bigger than a pea but some of it would make some American states seem small. Although the odds of a rogue planet on a collision course with the Earth are remote the possibility that the Earth may one day be struck by a Meteor, an Asteroid or a Comet is more a question of WHEN rather than IF. It has happened before and the Earth bears the scars to prove it, the dinosaurs that once roamed the Earth could bear witness to the aftermath of such an event, that it will happen again is almost a cosmic certainty.

The Earth rotates in a solar system that has many objects, which could potentially become a threat to the stability of life on its surface; they are called “Near Earth Objects” or NEO’s for want of a more accurate reference. Cosmically speaking these “Objects” are “In our back yard” or at the very least in our neighbours back yard and one day it is possible that any one of them could be deflected toward the Earth by a collision with any body that may impact upon it, equally an object may embark upon a collision course with the Earth from outside our solar system or our galaxy. The possibility of such an event would hold consequences for the Earth that could well end all life upon it and send the Earth into another ice age for millions of years or strip the Earth of its atmosphere incinerating everything upon it.

It is important then that if such an event were to become a reality that the inhabitants of a planet where life exists by the grace of a slender thread of cosmic circumstance should have the capability to avert what could be the end of the world.
The European Space Agency have been working on just such a scenario for a long time, the “Deep Impact” project was a scientific exploration launched by NASA but pursued by the ESA. Their next project may be one which the world as a whole has reason to be thankful for because its prime objective is “To deflect an asteroid from its chosen course” by much the same method employed against the comet.

The project is called the “Don Quijote mission”, the name drawn from the 16th century novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, a tale of a lesser knight [a Hidalgo] and his squire Sancho and the monsters the knight fought in chivalrous abandon only to find that they were merely windmills. The Don Quijote mission will comprise of two spacecraft the first “Sancho” which will carry all of the scientific measuring devices in likeness to the squire/servant who did everything asked of him and doggedly kept his master safe if he could and the second “Hidalgo” which is the Spanish name for the members of the minor nobility class which of course applies aptly to Don Quixote, its task will be to “Tilt at a cosmic windmill” it will impact on the asteroid in much the same way as “Deep Impact” hit the comet. The impact is expected to alter the course of the asteroid deflecting it from its chosen path. The experiment is not without valid purpose and may well have a practical application in the not too distant future. It is known that within the next fifteen years we may have to deflect an asteroid for real. There is a large asteroid expected to pass within 20,000 miles of the Earth in 2018, in cosmic terms that will be a “Near miss” so near that it gives cause for concern. It should be clearly visible from the Earth without a telescope the object will pass the surface of the Earth inside the orbit of our moon. There are however more serious threats to the Earth an actual impact with the Earth is predicted by 2100. In all of the “Fictional portrayals” of such an event “Thermo nuclear devices” borne to their target by highly visual rocketry usually destroy the “Object”. Don Quijote however will employ other means, the impact will be effected by Mass, Gravity and Velocity but the resulting impact will most likely be measured by its equivalent to a nuclear explosion, in megatons but there will be no fall out or radiation created. The object chosen for the experiment has a diameter of just 500 metres and its minimum estimated speed is 10 kilometres per second, which is around 22,500 miles per hour. The final target choice for the mission will not be made until 2007, there are two likely prospects of a similar size one is asteroid 2002 AT4 and the other is 1989 ML. Sancho is expected to be launched in 2011 and Hidalgo shortly afterward, it is vital that Sancho arrives at the target almost six months before Hidalgo so that scientific measuring devices can be deployed and calibrated, it is also imperative that the course of the asteroid is clearly established before any attempt at deflection is made so that any deviation from its original course can be measured accurately. The impact of  Hidalgo is expected to deflect the asteroid from its course by a deviation of around 10%, if it is a success then provided pre warning is early enough technology will be able to simply push asteroids out of harms way in a cosmic pool game. Neither of the two possible targets for the “Don Quijote” mission poses any threat to the earth and if this mission is a success there will be very few asteroids that ever will.

On a clear night when the stars are visible one might see with the naked eye a “Shooting star” and make a “wish” with little thought of what those shooting stars really are. Most are Meteors skipping across the Earths upper atmosphere just 372 miles above our heads [600 Km] some are small asteroids what the shooting stars show is these objects “Burning up” as they try to enter the Thermosphere at the wrong angle, the correct angle is around 17.5 degrees, few of them manage to penetrate the thermosphere where temperatures can be in the region of 1727 degrees Celsius but some do and when they do they plummet down to the surface gathering heat and acceleration which can only be released by the impact that follows when the fireball hits the Earths surface leaving whole forests destroyed as one did in Siberia or the huge craters that can be seen from earth on the moon that we now call seas. The Don Quijote mission may well make such events avoidable.


Posted: September 28, 2005 

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