On February 15, 2013, the morning skies over Russia’s Ural region lit up with the dazzling, brighter-than-the-sun light of the Chelyabinsk meteor careening towards Earth. Many Internet denizens will recall their feeds lighting up soon after with incredible eyewitness videos of the event. The meteor exploded in the sky and sent a shock upon impact that damaged more than 7,000 buildings in the sparsely populated region.
For Canadian geoscientist Michael Mazur, who happened to be showing off some of his meteor samples as those events were unfolding, that was a moment when he was finally able to make his lifelong work really hit home, so to speak, to outsiders.
Mazur, who left the academic field and now lives in Norway and has a day job in the oil industry, is now raising money on Indiegogo to help scientists do a better job at tracking so-called "near Earth objects"—asteroids and comets whose nearby orbits make them an occasional collision risk with Earth, like the one that hit Russia last year.
Space institutes and agencies around the world have already found an estimated 90% of the near-Earth objects (NEOs) that are larger than one kilometer in diameter—a size large enough to cause a massive global cataclysm. That’s why the agency has recently turned a new focus to smaller NEOs that are at least 140 meters, many of which could still cause major regional devastation. We know about 10,000 of these, but that's probably less than half of what's out there.
Mazur and his team want to crowdfund a network of telescopes, based at astronomical observatories here on Earth, that could focus on finding the smallest end of this range, below 100 meters (the Russian asteroid was estimated at around 20 meters in diameter). These are the objects that may hit Earth most frequently. Even a small 50 meter object would release the energy of 500 Hiroshima bombs and leave a 1.5 kilometer wide crater, Mazur notes. In 1908, the largest impact event in human’s recorded history also occurred in Russia. If it happened in a more populated area today, it could flatten a city. Scientists suspect that the 1908 episode isn’t particularly uncommon.
"The one in 100 year events are something that we or our children will experience at least once in our lifetimes. We have the technology to mitigate the risk considerably and we know that we can do it quite inexpensively. As a result, we feel that it is our ethical obligation to do something about it," says Mazur, explaining why people should want to fund his project and why he and his team are so passionate. He likens it to work studying the risks of rare but calamitous earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. (He estimates the odds of dying by space object impact to be somewhat higher than a U.S. resident dying by a tsunami and lower than being bitten by a dog).
Mazur and his team, which includes four other astronomers from around the world, recently launched two Indiegogo campaigns associated with their project. The first is to fund the assembly of a dedicated survey telescope, called PHASTT-1 (Potentially Hazardous Asteroid Search & Tracking Telescope) at an existing astronomical site in Spain that would find, track, and classify NEOs (and add them to an international database). The second, called PHASTTER, would involve refurbishing a vintage, high-quality telescope in Peru that was first built to track satellites during the Cold War. The goal is to create an open-data archive for research and education. Mazur says it would be the first dedicated NEO observatory for the southern hemisphere skies.
Bill Bottke, an NEO expert who heads the Southwest Research Institute's Department of Space Studies and is not affiliated with the project, said—after a quick look at the website—that the project looked like it would add a contribution to the existing network of NEO monitoring, especially because high-quality space-based survey missions (as opposed to ground telescopes) are so expensive to fund. He noted, however, that the observatories would probably have to operate for decades to make a big dent in the problem.
The campaigns to get the observatories off the ground are admittedly off to a slow start, having achieved only a drop in the bucket towards their respective 65,000 Euro and $215,000 funding goals at the time of writing. Normally such projects would be funded by a government, but Mazur says that could take years to get off the ground and his team was interested in getting started quickly and launching a public outreach effort.
There is hope though for the fundraising method with the right publicity and approach, says Bottke. One of the earliest surveys to look for NEOs, called Spacewatch, solicited donations to fund a lot of its work, and the Lowell Observatory in Arizona has gotten outside funding for their "Discovery Channel telescope."
Traditional funding, given shrinking space science budgets in the U.S., has never been an easy route. "It’s kind of sexy research, because the implications and the effects are so dramatic. It makes for great movies. But on the other hand, we don’t see it in our daily lives," Mazur laments.