I-Team: Nevada could help stop asteroids that pose threat to Earth

LAS VEGAS - You may have missed the date on your calendar but June 30 was Asteroid Day. It's not exactly a holiday or cause for celebration.

Rather, it's a day chosen by scientists to highlight the very real dangers posed to humanity by errant asteroids, the kind that serve as a plot device in the CBS series "Salvation."

Nevada is on the front lines of the fight to save the planet.

A doomsday space rock hurtling toward Earth can be a gripping narrative. In the movie Deep Impact, Robert Duvall's astronauts used nukes to save humanity, though the earth took a hit. In Armageddon, it was Bruce Willis and crew who did the same. The peril, however, isn't limited to movie theaters. It's all too real.

"All you have to do is look up at the moon to see all those craters came from somewhere," said Ben McGee, planetary scientist. "The earth gets hit regularly by asteroids. It's just a matter of time."

Planetary scientist and occasional TV host Ben McGee is trying not to be too much of an alarmist, but as he recently told an audience at the Atomic Testing Museum, there have already been five extinction level collisions in Earth's history. It's why he's joined the effort to promote International Asteroid Day.

"I think ultimately Asteroid Day is captured by an old Larry Niven quote that says, 'The dinosaurs went extinct because they didn't have a space program.' If we don't have a space program, we'll go extinct also and it will serve us right," McGee said.

The first line of defense is public awareness, get people looking at the skies so we might spot anything big that's heading our way. There are millions of pieces of space rock floating around in the asteroid belt, including an estimated million or so big enough to cause serious damage to us.

Of those, only 20,000 or so have been positively identified, their trajectories calculated. So, an organization was created for Asteroid Day and a website packed with unsettling information.

NASA also takes the issue seriously. It's created something that sounds like an X-Files episode -- The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, assigned to the early detection of P.H.O.'s Potentially Hazardous Objects. As the NASA diagram shows, pieces from asteroids have burned up in Earth's atmosphere pretty much everywhere on the planet, and often catch us by surprise.

There are videos of a space rock that blazed above a Russian city in 2013. It was captured on multiple cameras, damaged 700 buildings and injured more than 1,000 people.

"It exploded with the force of 500 kilotons, I mean that's like five Hiroshima bombs. It blew up at 15 miles fortunately," McGee said.

The Tunguska event over Siberia in the early 20th century flattened 80 million trees. If it had happened over a large city instead of wilderness -- disaster. In central Nevada, there's a little-known crater that proves just how much damage a meteor can cause if it is big enough to hit the surface.

In the TV series Salvation, Earth has six months to come up with a plan. McGee says humanity would have options if we had enough advance notice. The expertise developed at the Nevada Test Site with nuclear weapons represent one possible scenario -- send a nuke to pulverize a space rock. But another Nevada-based project also showed promise. The NERVA nuclear rocket engine program was abandoned decades ago, but tests showed, it worked.

"If we could actually park a nuclear rocket on the surface of the asteroid and just turn on the gas," McGee said. "Then it might be smarter and more appropriate to just shove an asteroid than try to blow it up."

McGee also agrees with tech whiz Elon Musk who thinks we need to put humans on Mars as the ultimate back up plan, in case one of the big ones catches us by surprise.

One of the co-founders of the Asteroid Day organization is astrophysicist Dr. Brian May, better known as the guitarist in the rock group Queen.

Dr. May authorized the use of one of his tunes as the theme song for the group. The song -- appropriately enough -- is "We Will Rock You."

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