Asteroid Day aims to raise awareness of catastrophic 'planet killers'

Jun 30, 2015

The idea of large asteroids threatening the Earth and its habitants is not just the stuff of Hollywood, say scientists and advocates who are urging governments to do more to detect the deadly space rocks.

Meteors fall into the Earth's atmosphere regularly and burn up in a flash of glory. Sometimes, bigger meteors find their way to the ground or blow apart above the surface, like the one over Chelyabinsk, Russia two years ago.

Then there are larger near-earth asteroids known as planet killers, the ones that could wipe out civilization. Asteroids are blamed for previous global catastrophes including the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.
Those recognizing "Asteroid Day" Tuesday say world leaders need to take the threat seriously and invest in efforts to track these bigger space rocks.

Kevin Williams, director of the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at Buffalo State College, says better monitoring of the skies can help do away with a lot of the misinformation when scientists do find something close to earth.

"I think it's really important for scientists and the media to make sure the public understands these are initial results that will be followed up by better calculations. But it is a big issue because it's almost like the boy who cried wolf. You don't want to keep warning about something happening and then it doesn't happen, because then when something is going to happen, they won't believe you," said Williams.

Williams adds that the sooner we know what's out there, the sooner we can come up with a plan, in the event an asteroid poses a threat.

"The biggest danger is the object you don't know about. That's the goal of early detection, to try to find these objects and if you detect one that is going to be a danger, having enough lead time to do something about it," Williams added.

A month's notice, Williams says, would not be enough time to prepare an adequate response. But that raises an ethical dilemma: do you tell humanity it has a month to live? Williams says that part of the debate is best left to philosophy classes.

Details about Asteroid Day and a petition pushing for more research are available here.