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An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN

Don't blast that asteroid!


Earth scientists would like to study it

July 9, 1998
Web posted at: 9:52 a.m. EDT (1352 GMT)

From Correspondent John Zarrella

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- If a comet or asteroid comes hurtling toward Earth, the solution favored by Hollywood in two recent movies is to blast it out of the way. But real-life scientists, who'd rather study them, say the fictional urge to blow the objects to smithereens is probably wrong.

Just "nudge it," suggests Brian Wilcox of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. 102 K/8 sec.  AIFF or WAV sound

Space debris has made a mess of our planet in the past and could again, but the odds are so small that Don Yeomans, a JPL astronomer, isn't losing any sleep.

Still, he adds, "it's good to know your enemy." 102 K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound

Trouble is, scientists don't know enough about the structure and composition of meteors and the like to determine what to do if one of them heads our way.

Jet Propulsion Lab to probe comets

To better understand what makes these space bodies tick, a number of missions are in the works, including three planned by JPL:

  • In one, a miniature rover will be sent to land on an asteroid, sending back information as it crawls along the rocky surface.

  • Another mission, named Champollion, calls for landing on a comet with a harpoon-like device that anchors the spacecraft. If all goes as planned, retrieved samples will be returned to Earth.

  • The third project, called Stardust, will fly through a comet's tail, gather particles in a tennis racket-shaped device and return to Earth.

What interests astronomers and engineers most about comets and asteroids is not whether they'll strike the Earth sometime in the future but what the slabs of rock and ice can tell us about the past.

Astronomers believe the objects are left over bits and pieces from the formation of the solar system.

Visionaries believe that in the next century comets and asteroids could be mined for valuable resources -- titanium, iron and ice that could be turned into water.

While each comet and asteroid appears to be unique, scientists say all of them are time capsules preserved in the deep freeze of space.

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