The Spirit of Trek – Asteroids: Threats and Opportunites

By Mike Medeiros

Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages have started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. With the recent asteroid fly by and the Russian meteor only days before that, asteroids have been a recent hot topic. Throughout Star Trek’s long history, there have been many episodes that feature how various crews handle threats from asteroids. Whether it’s from the Paradise Syndrome in the Original Series to Enterprise’s Terra Nova, the threats that asteroids posed are very real. However, there are opportunities available with asteroids through mining and colonization as seen in Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and even TOS with episodes like Homestead, In Purgatory’s Shadow, Metamorphosis and others.

Asteroids are free floating rocks commonly found this side of Jupiter. The majority can be found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but there are many that ricocheted their way into the inner solar system. Some of these can get captured in orbit of planets, such as Mars’ dual asteroidal moons. Others roam the about being pushed and pulled along by the gravity of the objects they encounter along the way. When they travel to close to Earth, they are referred to as Near Earth Asteroids (NEA).

On February 15th 2013, asteroid 2012 DA14 came exceedingly close to Earth, missing it by just more than 17,000 miles. This 150 foot hunk of rock was preceded by a smaller rock (less than 60 feet) that got sucked up by the Earth and burned up in the sky over Russia. Although scientists had known about the larger rock, the one that exploded over Russia caught them by surprise. This left right combination has spurred the United Nations and various space agencies around the globe to give these potentially destructive events more serious consideration.

There are thousands of known NEAs, but as the recent events proved, it’s the ones we don’t know about that are the most worrisome. The UN has thrown their support behind the identification and tracking of these objects, while seeking solutions to respond to these potentially world-shattering events. NASA has granted $5 million to a team at the University of Hawaii for their ATLAS: The Asteroid Terrestrial Impact Last Alert System project, which will place 8 small telescopes to watch the skies and provide a week’s notice or more about impending asteroid impacts by objects 50 feet or larger. The approach will give cities time to evacuate the impact zone.

But, what if a massive object, perhaps thousands of feet in diameter or more, collided with the Earth? There wouldn’t be anywhere to run, since an object 1000 feet across can be detrimental to an area of thousands of square miles, while a 6 mile asteroid is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. While the chances of impacts are quite low, scientists have set their mind to the task of destroying or diverting the rock before it gets too close to the Earth.

A few of the ideas being batted around for knocking these near earth curve balls out of the park vary greatly. One option is use nuclear weapons, not to destroy the rock (which could actually make it worse), but instead, to use the bomb’s blast and shockwave to bunt it down the baseline. Another idea in the same vein would be to use a device NASA refers to as a kinetic interceptor to collide with the rock and divert it away from the Earth as long as ample notice is given.

Scientists have also looked at sunlight as methods to divert asteroids. One thought requires coating the asteroid in light colored dust or chalk and allowing photons to reflect off the light colored surface and slowly roll the rock out our way. Allowing sun light to do the heavy lifting is behind the idea of deploying massive solar sails to capture sunlight and push the rock out of the way. A third idea along the same vein proposes using mirrors to reflect and focus sunlight onto the rock, superheating it. Like the kinetic methods described earlier, the sunlight from the mirrors would vaporize rock, expelling vapors and providing thrust.

A few other ideas for preventing asteroid Armageddon include rockets, gravity, and robots. By strapping massive rockets to asteroids, we may be able to send the boulder packing. In space, a little gravity can go a long way, which is the thinking behind the gravitational tractor. This idea involves a hefty robot probe navigating close to the asteroid, and using it’s gravity to slowly tow the mountain of stone from our neighborhood. The final method that could work to divert asteroids requires robotic miners to devour the space rock and use the kinetic energy of their material return vehicles to nudge it away from Earth.

Companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources Inc. are already working on methods to produce the infrastructure needed to catalog the composition of asteroids, extract valuable resources, and return them to Earth robotically. We know that asteroids can possess everything from water to metals such as iron, aluminum, gold, and platinum as well. By mining resources from these asteroids, we can build the infrastructure we need to explore, such as fuel, building materials, and even the valuable metals to finance the endeavors and protect the world from these near earth objects.

In Star Trek, we have seen a variety of methods that they have used to move asteroids from striking a planet. Most of them involved tractor beams, or other energy weapons. However, until working full scale versions of these technologies are developed, we will have to come up with alternative methods of protecting our home planet.

The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and prosper.


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