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Former Astronaut On Watching For Life-Destroying Objects From Space


This is Lulu's log - star date April 21, 2019 - where we explore matters of space, the stars and the universe.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: A meteor exploded over the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska at the end of last year with the energy of 10 atomic bombs. It happened with no warning whatsoever. And we only just learned of it. Former Astronaut Ed Lu keeps a close eye on objects that might collide with the earth. He's the executive director of B612, an organization that works to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts and other planetary defense issues. Thank you so much for joining us.

ED LU: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we only just learned of this meteor because NASA only just now put up the information on its website. That's pretty worrying, I must say.

LU: Well, actually, the incident was observed right away.


LU: It's just that it was observed not by NASA but originally by a network of sensors used to detect atomic bomb explosions or nuclear-weapons tests around the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Typically, how much notice do space agencies or observatories get about meteor or asteroid strikes?

LU: The typical notice for asteroid impacts on Earth is zero.


LU: And that's because the vast majority of asteroids are still untracked. This particular asteroid was quite small. It was only about 30 feet across. And the vast, vast majority of asteroids that small are not tracked.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This landed in the sea. But if it had landed somewhere else, on land, I mean, how much damage could it have caused, just to give us some perspective?

LU: To give an example of the kind of thing that can happen - just about six years ago, in 2013, we had an asteroid a little bit larger that exploded near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. And its shockwave blew out many, many thousands of windows in the Russian - in Chelyabinsk, collapsed, I think - I believe it was seven buildings and sent about 1,500 people to the hospital. And that explosion was luckily about 40 kilometers away from the city. So had that happened over the city, it could've been quite bad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you were an astronaut. And now you've founded this organization keeping an eye out for life-destroying objects from space. What's the connection there? Why did you decide to found this organization after you went out into space?

LU: Well, the interesting thing about looking at the Earth and the moon from the vantage point of being out there in space for a long period of time is that you look at the craters on the moon. And you look at the Earth. And you look back and forth. And you realize that there are more craters - or there are more impacts on Earth than there have been on the moon. You just don't see the craters as much because we have an atmosphere. And we have water and continents and weather and so on that erase older craters. But the fact of the matter is that the earth does get hit more than the moon. And we do have the technology to both find and track these asteroids and to deflect them. And it felt to me and a number of my co-founders that that is something that we ought to do because we do know that the Earth has been hit in the past by very large asteroid impacts that have changed the evolution of life here on this planet. In fact, we humans today are here because an asteroid killed off all the dinosaurs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what can be done to protect the planet? What would you like to see happen - briefly?

LU: Well, the first thing you have to do is simply mapping the locations of all the asteroids where they are and where they're going because that will tell you which, if any of these things, are a danger to the Earth. Once you know that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, say, 10, 20, 30 years from now - and that's - that would be the goal, decades of advanced notice. You only need to give a tiny nudge to an asteroid to keep it from hitting the Earth. And in fact, NASA is about to do a test deflection on an asteroid that's coming nowhere near the Earth to show how you can simply run into it with a small spacecraft and that that is sufficient in most cases to give the tiny impulse you need to make an asteroid miss the Earth. If you have enough notice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Former astronaut Ed Lu, executive director of B612, thank you so much.

LU: Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.