Authors: Frank J. Derfler
As Jose stepped back Rae stepped forward. "Thank you Major. I'm very happy to be here. Both Major Valenzuela and Mr. Pulliam tell me you all are smart and quick. So, let’s get into some rocket science. "
That drew a laugh. Rae pressed a button on a remote and the screen wall came alive.
"The Jet Propulsion Laboratory keeps what they call the Small Body Database. No, they do not mean some NASA astronauts I could name." That joke broke the ice and she really had their attention.
"The term small bodies refers to comets and asteroids. This screen shot shows you that a few days ago the database tracked three thousand and ten comets and almost four hundred and eighty thousand asteroids. The technical term we use at NASA is rocks. Many of these rocks were discovered by amateurs. Congress mandated that NASA discover ninety percent of all near-Earth objects one hundred and forty meters in diameter or greater by the year 2020, but they didn't give us any funds to do it.
It's often the amateurs who make the discoveries in near Earth orbit that interest us. A rock that might come near us is called a Near-Earth Object or nee-oh. The loose international network that watches for NEOs is called Spaceguard. That name comes from an Arthur C. Clarke novel. Spaceguard should be important to this project."
"Frankly, there are no NEOs out there that we know about that we are worried about right now. Asteroid YU55 was discovered by the University of Arizona in 2005. It’s a little over a thousand feet in diameter. It’s been tracked long enough that we can say with confidence that it will pass the Earth in November 2011. We expect the pass to be about the same distance as the moon, or maybe a little closer. At over a thousand feet, this is a big rock.”
“Of the known space rocks, the next time an object will concern us will be in 2029 when an 885-foot asteroid called 99942 Apophis will make a close pass. Some Russians claim Apophis will make a direct hit on the Earth, but NASA’s numbers say it will miss. That’s 2029. Right now, it's the ones we can't see that we worry about."
The screen showed a view of the Mediterranean Ocean from space. "In June 2002 a high energy explosion took place over the Mediterranean Sea roughly between Libya, Crete, and Greece. We are certain it was a small space rock that entered at a steep angle. There was no damage, but in some other area, perhaps over a city in India or Pakistan, the reactions and results might have been very different."
The view on the screen changed to Siberia. "Seven years ago, on September 25 2002, an explosion estimated at as much as five kilotons took place near the town of Bodaybo in the Vitim River basin in Siberia. It's called the Vitim event. No people or property was harmed. What these two events have in common is that no one saw them coming. There was no warning."
Just last year, 2008, in October, the folks operating a small one and a half meter telescope near Tucson got lucky and spotted a rock about nineteen hours before it hit the Earth. JPL and many other organizations received the observation and confirmed it. The rock was probably about fifteen feet across. It exploded about twenty-three miles above the Nubian Desert in Sudan. The explosion from this relatively small rock amounted to the equivalent of a couple of kilotons of TNT. As you know, the Little Boy bomb used on Hiroshima was fifteen kilotons. Overall, meteoroids of this size hit the Earth two or three times a year on average."
"One of the scariest rocks we've seen was DD45. It is a big rock that passed about forty-five thousand miles away... that's about a fifth the distance between the Earth and our Moon… just a few months ago. It was spotted on February twenty-seventh and made its close pass on March second 2009. There was three days warning."
She flashed a picture of a grey porous rock on the screen. "DD45 is about sixty feet across. The altitude and size of the explosion it would create if it hit the Earth depends a lot on its angle of approach, but this rock is roughly the size of the one that caused the Tunguska Event in 1908. The estimates vary, but when I run the numbers I always come up with about ten megatons for Tunguska. So, DD45 could have been a city whacker and we were lucky to have had barely three days notice."
The warrant officers in the room had trained on US Army W-80 nuclear warheads that could be dialed in explosive power in the range of many kilotons, so they understood intellectually and viscerally the power Rae described.
"There is even a Twitter topic group for Asteroid alerts," she continued. "The Twitter tag is at sign AsteroidWatch. Everybody can get involved."
"At this point you are probably asking how we stop these things." Her slide showed a big question mark on the briefing screen. "Well, the bottom line is we don't. But, our thinking is that we can do two things to change their course and reduce their impact. First, if we can drop some of your hot beads a few inches under the surface of the object, we can fracture the crust and cause it to expel material. That will cause an opposite force that can modify the rock's course. When it comes to space rocks, a near miss is as good as a mile and a shallow angle of entry into the atmosphere is a lot better than a steep one, so any little push we can give the rock in the right direction is helpful. "
"The second thing we would like to consider is throwing lead at it. In effect, put a lot of lead or heavy alloy pellets clustered in its path."
Mr. Pulliam observed, "Building a Claymore in space one piece of shrapnel at a time."
Rea's face showed that she wasn't sure about his reference to a Claymore mine, but she nodded and went on, "We could force the rock to rebound off the shrapnel, as you said, and to take a better course or perhaps even fragment a rock that isn't a total nugget of iron ore. A bunch of smaller chunks of space rock has a much larger surface area than a single rock of the same weight and burns off a lot more material before it hits.”
Rae started to take questions and the briefing turned into a general discussion about how the Project could influence an incoming piece of space rock. They formed an action group to tie into Spaceguard and other NASA and JPL networks and to improve the software they had for determining flight paths. It was after 1800 when the off duty crews drifted away and things wound down. Rae and Jose went back to his office.
"Super job, Rae. And scary too. You gave them all something to think about. Didn't we send a spacecraft out to land on one of these asteroids? I remember something about that."
"Yes," she replied. "There have been several. In 1997 a spacecraft named Near flew within a three hundred miles of an asteroid called Mathilde and sent photos. That’s probably the one you heard about. In 1999 a spacecraft called Stardust launched. A sampling capsule from Stardust returned to Earth in 2006. NASA didn’t talk much about initially. Internally they claimed they were afraid of environmental extremists. I think they were afraid of finding signs of extraterrestrial life.”
Jose smiled, “Ah yes, that might upset folks of various religious persuasions.”
Rae nodded, “They opened up the data and volunteers are still combing through the tracks of microscopic particles online. Then, the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, sent a mission to an asteroid discovered by one of their astronomers in 2003. The neat thing is that the Japanese mission should bring samples of that asteroid back to Earth in 2010."
"Did you have anything to do with the Japanese mission?" Jose asked.
"I was a liaison with JAXSA for tracking data." Rae replied. I went to Japan twice and was monitoring the rendezvous between the probe and the asteroid from Houston. That was very exciting."
"Did you get to know any of the JAXSA folks?" Jose asked innocently.
"Oh yes," Rae replied, "I still keep in touch with some of them. The Japanese are very interested in Near Space Objects."
When Rae left it was almost 1900. Jose turned to his computer and created a classified message to General Landry describing Rae's previous relationship with the Japanese Space Agency, JAXSA. Jose knew that it was high noon in Japan and his message might get some attention. Then, on his way back to his apartment he remembered to call Jelli to see what she wanted to do on Friday night.
Chapter 5: "Local Flight"
Monday September 7, 2009 0900 Pacific
Boulder City Municipal Airport, Boulder City, Nevada
Excerpt from the Personal Narrative of Mr. Jose Valenzuela
Recorded July 2012
"Flying that F-5 with Rae was a joy. I wish we could do it again!”
Major Jose Valenzuela and Warrant Officer Craig Pulliam waited together on the ramp under the wing of a Cessna TR182. Through the airport fence, they saw a red Chevrolet Tahoe pull into a parking spot.
"That's her," Pulliam said.
"You flew with her last Thursday?" Jose asked.
"Yeah. She doesn't have a lot of time in light single engine aircraft. Apparently after Air Force flight school she went to one of those airline prep courses to get her private pilot and commercial ratings, and they used twin-engine turbines. She knows what she's doing, but she thought a hundred and ten knots was pretty slow. "
"Oh my!" Pulliam said a moment later as he watched Rae get out of the Tahoe.
She had on a powder blue NASA flight suit and even through the fence the two men could see that it was tailored to her body. She leaned into the Tahoe and the tailoring of the flight suit paid off. Then, slinging a helmet bag over her shoulder, she marched through the airport gate with a long stride. As she came closer they could see that her shiny black boots had blue laces that matched the flight suit. Her dark hair was pulled back close to her head. Combined with a tall lithe body, the impact was quite spectacular.
Pulliam had on a brown Army Flight suit that fit him well. Jose had picked the first green Air Force flight suit he saw hanging in his closet. He did have one that was a little more tailored, but this one fit him like a shopping bag. He was wearing military rough out desert boots that were well broken in, but not very spiffy looking.
"Let's go flying!" Rae greeted them. Jose noted her astronaut badge embroidered in silver on her flight suit.
"I'll get in the back." Jose said, attempting to sound gracious. His helmet bag and other flight gear were already in the back of the Cessna.
Pulliam had done the pre-flight and each one of them had independently checked the weather, so after getting their headsets and seat belts straightened away, Pulliam started up and taxied to the runway. Nevada averages 300 sunny days a year, so ceiling and visibility typically aren't big problems, but winds can keep general aviation aircraft on the ground. As soon as the wheels left the runway, Pulliam had to crab the aircraft into the crosswind to stay on the runway heading.
Within twenty minutes they were on the ground at Nellis Air Force Base and Pulliam taxied the Cessna to base operations. "All out!" he announced.
By 1000 Jose and Rae were seated in a massive auditorium in the Red Flag building complex. Red Flag is the largest and most realistic air combat training program in the world. The room was already full of flyers, mostly officers, in flight suits. Rae noticed that the side of the room Jose chose to sit on was not as raucous as the other side. "What are they on over there?" she asked Jose in a low voice.