NASA warns an asteroid is headed towards Earth before Election Day – Screen Shot
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NASA warns an asteroid is headed towards Earth before Election Day

Forget about COVID-19 and the circus of the US presidential elections for one moment. According to the Center for Near Earth Objects Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we now have an asteroid coming our way. Yes, 2020 just keeps on getting better.

Before we all start panicking and theorising about what we did to deserve such a dingy year, it is important that we keep it together and look at the facts first. Forget about other publications that have quickly jumped on the opportunity to write up a great clickbait piece, try to ignore astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s added worries about the asteroid and rest assured that it actually has very few chances of hitting Earth—only 0.41 per cent chance to be more precise.

The celestial object known as 2018VP1 is projected to come close to Earth on 2 November 2020, only one day prior to the US’ dreaded Election Day. It was first identified at Palomar Observatory in California in 2018 and is very small for an asteroid, with a diameter of approximately 6.5 feet (0.002 kilometers).

This means that, as scary as it is to imagine an asteroid potentially hitting Earth, 2018VP1—what a charming name—poses no threat to us. “If it were to enter our planet’s atmosphere, it would disintegrate due to its extremely small size,” explained NASA in a statement, adding that “based on 21 observations spanning 12,968 days,” the agency has determined that the asteroid probably won’t have a deep impact.

Potentially hazardous objects, usually asteroids or comets, have an orbit taking them close to Earth and are large enough to cause significant regional damage if they ever hit the planet. 2018VP1 is not one of them. Earlier this year in August, an asteroid flew just 1,830 miles over the southern Indian Ocean—the closest such an object has flown past Earth on record.

The object, known as asteroid 2020 GC, was spotted by the Zwicky Transient Facility, a robotic camera which scans the sky, and was thought to be roughly the size of a large car. Its small size meant asteroid 2020 GC did not pose much of a threat to Earth either as it would have likely broken up in the planet’s atmosphere if it was on course for direct impact.

Meanwhile, a NASA spacecraft is now on a mission to attempt to descend on an asteroid and bring back a sample in a 10-second mission. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft has been circling the Bennu asteroid for nearly two years, hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth. Tomorrow, on Tuesday 20 October, it will try to collect a handful of dirt and gravel from its boulder-packed surface.

The mission will last just five to 10 seconds and hopes to bring back 60 grams worth of Bennu with the help of an 11 feet arm that will reach out for a sample. If the first attempt fails, Osiris-Rex will be able to try again but experts will still have to wait until 2023 before the samples are brought back to Earth.

Japan is the only country in the world to have successfully completed such a mission. It is planning to get samples back from another asteroid called Ryugu in December, 10 years after another successful mission to bring back part of an asteroid named Itokawa.

Good to know: 18-year-old astronaut Alyssa Carson’s mission to Mars

It’s safe to say that humanity has pretty much always been obsessed with outer space. But it wasn’t until our technology developed that the possibility of venturing into space materialised and the Space Race as we know it was born. And while the last century saw the race for space as being predominantly a competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. for who will be the first to set foot on the moon, the 21st century has seen a drastic shift from that. Today, space is turning into a playground for wealthy men eager to launch their satellites and rockets into orbit and, hopefully for them, land on the Moon, Mars, or any other planet for that matter.

Going to Mars has been in talks for a while, and now, with an official plan by NASA to send humans to the red planet by the early 2030s, who will be the first to travel into the unknown? Meet Alyssa Carson, an 18-year-old female astronaut who is breaking (literal) barriers on her planned mission to Mars, working toward this goal pretty much her entire life.

Screen Shot spoke to Carson about Mars, her involvement in the space industry, and the current state of the Space Race. “I was around 3 years old,” Carson says when asked when her fascination with Mars began. She claims she was inspired by Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans ‘Mission to Mars’ episode, and has been dedicated to set foot on Mars ever since—becoming the first person in the world to finish all of NASA’s space camps, graduating high school, and receiving her pilot’s license, all by the age of 18.

Carson is also the youngest person to have ever been accepted to the Advanced Possum Academy in October 2016 when she was just 15-years-old, graduating and becoming certified to to go to space— also making her the world’s youngest astronaut in training. She has attended all of NASA’s 19 spacecamps and is the only person in the world who completed the NASA passport programme, having visited all sites. Hoping to go to space for the first time for a short research mission in the “next year or so,” Carson is now likely to be one of the first few people to go to Mars in the early 2030s.

“There are still a lot of challenges to overcome with this mission—there are the radiation levels, the simple idea of having food for 2-3 years, and getting back,” says Carson. In 2001, when NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft launched, it was equipped with a special radiation measuring device, called the Martian Radiation Experiment (aka the MARIE), and detected about 8,000 millirads per year, working out to 8 rads. For comparison, humans in the most developed countries on earth are exposed to around 0.62 rads per year. Prolonged exposure to the kind of levels detected on Mars could lead to all kinds of health problems, such as acute radiation sickness, cancer, genetic damage, and even death.

None of this stops Carson, as she stays positive and trusts that the industry will be able to come up with solutions to all these issues prior to her sailing off to Mars. “I feel in pretty good hands,” she says, believing that everyone working on making this mission a reality is immensely passionate and prioritise safety above all. And if they are even half as enthusiastic and determined as Carson herself, we can trust this to be the case.

This is an incredibly competitive industry, and Carson is not alone in her dream of traveling to outer space.“18,000 people will apply and only around 12 get selected”. When asked what it is like to be a young woman in this industry, Carson encourages to get more women on board, as well as create a more intersectional community within, including queer people as “it is lacking a bit in the space industry”—although she does mention that NASA aims to choose half-male, half-female astronauts.

Like most industries, we could do with more diversity, but the one thing we can not disregard is that there are a lot of incredible and inspiring women “empowering the space industry”, Carson being one of them. Yet, somehow, the mainstream media almost always ignores this and focuses its attention on men. When was the last time you’ve read an article or listened to a podcast about going to space which did not involve Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin? That is of course not to discredit the valuable work of both men or Musk’s remarkable scientific developments, but it is about time we include women in the conversation.

As for the future of the industry, Carson believes that “space will start booming”, space tourism will grow, and soon even ordinary civilians will be able to travel to outer space (although I wonder at what cost).

But is moving to another planet and starting over the solution to our many problems on Earth? “The reason why we are going to Mars is to offer the next level of stability—going to Mars will offer us more materials, more resources,”says Carson, who believes that relocating to outer space could ensure the survival of our species, as well as pave the way for rapid developments within science and technology, which naturally would improve lives both on Mars and on Earth.

But how do we make sure we don’t destroy Mars the exact same way in which we are destroying our own planet, slowly directing it into environmental doom? “The ultimate goal is to care for Mars,” says Carson. The idea of starting over is certainly appealing, but history does have a tendency to repeat itself, and we need to be very careful once we inhabit Mars or any other planet. Space is the place where you would have to reuse everything, as there is a limited amount of resources we can take from Earth to begin with.

There is also the challenge of figuring out how to transport an increasing amount of resources (after all, at the moment it does take 7 months to travel to Mars). So, hopefully, when we come to colonise Mars, we apply much more caution than we did to our own planet.

Until then, let’s keep celebrating women like Carson who keep pushing boundaries and improving the space industry for the better.