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July 26th, 2017

Insight

Vesta may have met its match instead of meeting Earth

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published June 2, 2017

Vesta may have met its match instead of meeting Earth

What's Vesta? It's the name of the largest asteroid in the swirling belt of them between Mars and Jupiter, while Carrie Nugent is the name of the 33-year-old asteroid hunter whose job is search our solar system for any asteroids whose current orbit might intersect with this planet's, leading to a collision of worlds a lot more dangerous than your average bumper-thumper.

Just as it almost was in the sci-fi movie "Armageddon," which was a big hit back in 1998 as earthlings reckon time.

So much space to scan, so little time.

But relax, worriers, for Carrie Nugent sounds more than qualified for her interplanetary job. She's got a doctorate from Cal Tech, an insatiable curiosity and, perhaps most remarkable of all in our dour times, a saving sense of humor.

In her, Vesta may have met its match instead of meeting Earth.

But if you haven't got enough to worry about, Gentle Reader, consider the possibility -- even the probability -- of being struck by an asteroid, which is called a meteorite once its enters Earth's atmosphere and lights up like a shooting star. It could happen, and indeed has happened as recently as 2013, when a meteorite plowed through a stretch of Russia near Chelyabinsk, cracking windows and shaking up an estimated 3,000 structures. But it was nothing compared to the asteroid strike that students of these calamitous things believe struck earth an estimated 66 million years ago, a mere eye-blink in God's time, wiping out the dinosaurs and even tilting the earth's axis of rotation.

The one American definitely known to have been hit by a meteorite is Ann Hodges in 1954 when the roof of her house in Alabama fell in and she was left with a bruise almost a foot long on her side. It could have been worse, as people say, although they tend not to mention that it could have been better, too. Namely, if her home hadn't been hit by a meteorite at all. But earth-and-space scientists have located and numbered some 700,000 of these space rocks tumbling 'round and 'round out there in the all too wild black yonder. Given time enough, they could project where each one should be every day for the next 800 years or so.

"Obviously," says Dr. Nugent, "we'd like to find all the ones that are big and are close to earth." And so represent a clear and ever more present danger. Forewarned, or rather fore-projected, is forearmed.

It's good to know that Carrie Nugent and others are on the lookout for minuscule points of light in pictures taken by powerful telescopes back here on the home planet. But people haven't been entirely outmoded by telescopes yet. "Human eyes are a lot better than technology at this point," Ms. Nugent says. Besides, it takes humans to come up with the technology, just as Galileo Galilei did centuries ago. Humans may be better at this vocation than their machines, having a better Maker.

But what's to be done if an asteroid is found barreling toward Earth at a speed unrestrained by the workings of gravity on our earth-bound lives? The options are many and even optimal. For one, a spacecraft could be dispatched to the vicinity of said asteroid, and its very presence over the years might alter the asteroid's course so it's no longer a threat to this planet. Or the spacecraft could be flown directly into the asteroid with much the same result, as when a pool player sends his ball brushing against another so it falls safely into a side pocket.

For the learned Dr. Nugent, it's all in a day's routine. By now she's had one of those asteroids she hunts named for her -- 8801 Nugent by name and number. But she hasn't been spoiled by all the honors she's earned, and still retains a childlike wonder at the universe around her and amused by the names given some asteroids. Such as Dioretsa -- which is Asteroid spelled backwards in honor of its orbit -- which goes in the opposite direction of that taken by most asteroids.

Her folks must be mighty proud of this still young lady, for she's credit not only to them but her whole species. She's given the rest of us a new vision of the old cosmos, and may save this old world yet.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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