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Cathy Plesko, Ph.D., is a research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. She contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
In a couple of weeks, at the Planetary Defense Conference just outside of Washington, D. C., I'll be taking my turn at one of the highest-stakes role-playing games on the planet: an emergency response drill where astronomers, emergency management experts, planetary scientists (like me), meteoriticists, rocket scientists and other experts work together to practice our response if a large asteroid or comet were heading toward us. Like a fire drill, we practice our roles and test new technology and scientific data to see how it changes what we think the best response would be.
Asteroids - Comets - Earth - Random - Chance
Even though asteroids and comets large enough to be dangerous don't hit the Earth very often, they do hit at random, so there is a chance that an extinction-level event (like what happened to the dinosaurs) could happen to us. It would be like winning the worst lottery prize ever. So planning for a way to protect ourselves is important.
Fortunately, we're getting to the point where we can see these potentially hazardous objects coming and maybe even do something about it. Astronomers using Earth- and space-based telescopes have discovered almost 20,000 near-Earth objects so far, and the pace of discovery is speeding up. Like a new pair of glasses, future telescopes such as the upcoming NeoCam space telescope have the potential to show us hazards that we couldn't see before.
Telescopes - Object - Orbit - Hundreds - Years
Once the telescopes reveal what an object is and where it's going, we can simulate its orbit for hundreds of years into the future. If that orbit crosses our planet's path at any point, the United Nations' International Asteroid Warning Network will notify member governments and serve as a clearinghouse for information...
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