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Originally published April 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 10, 2005 at 8:35 PM

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Asteroids could spell calamity

Astronomer David Tholen spotted it last year in the early evening of June 19, using the University of Arizona's Bok telescope. It was a new...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Astronomer David Tholen spotted it last year in the early evening of June 19, using the University of Arizona's Bok telescope. It was a new "near-Earth object," a fugitive asteroid wandering through space on a path toward Earth.

Tholen's team took three pictures that night and three the next night, but storm clouds and the moon blocked further observations. They reported their fixes to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., and moved on.

Tholen's object was spotted again six months later in Australia as asteroid "2004 MN4," so named in accordance with a complicated coding system based on the date of discovery. In the space of five days straddling Christmas, startled astronomers refined their calculations as the probability of the 1,000-foot-wide stone missile hitting Earth increased from one chance in 170 to one in 38.

They never had measured anything as potentially dangerous to Earth. Impact would come on Friday the 13th in April 2029.

The holidays and the tsunami in South Asia pushed 2004 MN4 out of the news, and additional observations since then showed that the asteroid would miss, but only by 15,000 to 25,000 miles — about one-tenth the distance to the moon.

Asteroid 2004 MN4 was no false alarm. Instead, it has provided the best evidence yet that a catastrophic encounter with a rogue visitor from space is not only possible but probably inevitable.

It also demonstrated the tenacity of the small band of professionals and amateurs who track potential impact asteroids, and highlighted the shortcomings of an international system that pays scant attention to their work.

"I used to say the total number of people interested in this was no more than one shift at a McDonald's restaurant," said David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA's Ames Research Center and a student of near-Earth objects for nearly three decades. "Now it's maybe two shifts."

Awareness of the apocalyptic potential of near-Earth objects has been slow to develop. It took years for Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez and his son Walter to win acceptance for their 1980 research showing that a near-Earth object impact quite likely caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"The human brain wouldn't grasp reality until it had somewhat more direct evidence," said Colorado-based planetary scientist Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute, another longtime expert on near-Earth objects. "Alvarez provided that."

The vast majority of near-Earth objects are asteroids — huge rocks or chunks of iron that travel around the sun in eccentric orbits that cross Earth's path periodically. The rest are comets — ancient piles of dust, stones and ice that come in from the edges of the solar system.

"The good news is that comets represent 1 percent of the danger," said Donald Yeomans, who manages NASA's Near-Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The bad news is that should we find one, there's not a lot we can do about it. ... We detect them only nine months from impact."

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Asteroids, by contrast, generally offer decades or even centuries of warning — unless they are too small to detect, in which case there is no warning at all. But today's technology enables astronomers to get a fix on any asteroid capable of causing a global "extinction event" — six miles in diameter or bigger.

Tholen, of the University of Hawaii, is a frequent contributor in the search for threatening objects. The discover of 2004 MN4 specializes in "Atens," a subspecies that orbit mostly between Earth and the sun and are difficult to see in solar glare. To spot Atens, astronomers must work at dawn or dusk.

Asteroid 2004 MN4 is a "regional" hazard — big enough to flatten Texas or a couple of European countries with an impact equivalent to 10,000 megatons of dynamite — more than all the nuclear weapons in the world. Even though it will be a near miss in 2029, that will not be the last word.

"You don't know what the gravitational effect of the Earth will be," said Brian Marsden, who oversees the hunt for near-Earth objects as director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"In 2029, the [close encounter with] Earth will increase the size of the orbit, and the object could get into a resonance with the Earth," he added. "You could get orbit matchups every five years or nine years, or something in between." In fact, 2004 MN4 could come close again in 2034, 2035, 2036, 2037, 2038 or later.

So, what can be done? The first thought, dramatically depicted in the 1998 movies "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," is to nuke the intruder into small pieces so it will burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Many scientists say, however, that this is unacceptably sloppy: Instead of obliterating the target, the bomb could break the asteroid into large radioactive chunks capable of transforming huge stretches of Earth into wasteland.

Or the explosion could deflect but not destroy the asteroid, putting it on a future collision course. A nuclear strategy also would require a stockpile of doomsday weapons forever.

"The cure's worse than the disease," said former Apollo astronaut Russell "Rusty" Schweickart. He is a board member of the B612 Foundation, a group of experts promoting a space mission by 2015 to send a "tugboat" spacecraft to a near-Earth object, dock with it and gently alter its speed enough to change its orbit — to show that it can be done. (B612 is the name of the asteroid home of "The Little Prince," in the Antoine de Saint-Exupery story.)

"You want to delay or speed up the asteroid a little," said Berlin-based Alan Harris, chairman of the European Space Agency's Near-Earth Object Mission Advisory Panel. "What kind of surface do you have: Is it rocky? Dusty? Rubbly? How much force can I apply? I don't want to break it up — unless I really break it up."

B612 has a design but little money, while the European Space Agency has spent only a nominal amount to study the feasibility of a reconnaissance mission to an asteroid. NASA, at $4 million a year, currently is the big spender for near-Earth object research.

NASA's task — which Congress imposed in 1998 — is to find 90 percent of the estimated 1,100 near-Earth objects that are 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) or greater in diameter by 2008. As of mid-March, JPL's database included 762 of these.

On March 1, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., introduced the George E. Brown Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, mandating $40 million for a two-year start-up to survey every object 100 meters (328 feet) across or larger, of which there may be 300,000. To date, Marsden of the Minor Planet Center has registered 3,265 near-Earth objects of all sizes.

Since its discovery, astronomers have continued to observe 2004 MN4 whenever possible.

"It would be awfully nice to have information so we don't get surprised," said Schweickart, who advocates flying a small interceptor mission to plant a transponder on 2004 MN4 that would constantly radio its location, tagging it like a grizzly bear.

"Our favorite little asteroid might provide enough reality here to provoke people. Maybe we should get serious."

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