NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had been a congressional representative for just one month when a large asteroid fell through the atmosphere and exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, flashing brighter in the sky than the sun — and that experience has clearly stuck with him.
Bridenstine spoke about that impact and the importance of using the science of planetary defense to protect against future similar impacts during introductory comments today (April 29) at the International Academy of Astronautics' 2019 Planetary Defense Conference held in College Park, Maryland.
"We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it's not about movies," Bridenstine said, referencing the so-called "giggle factor" that he believes causes the public to write off the severity of the risk from an asteroid impact. "This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth."
The conference, which lasts through Friday, addresses key topics in planetary defense, including detecting, tracking and characterizing near-Earth objects, exploring ways to deflect potential impactors and understanding how to prepare emergency procedures to keep people safe if and when an impact does occur.
Bridenstine argued that that work is crucial, and that it could one day avert — or at least reduce — disaster. "We have to use our systems, use our capabilities to ultimately get a lot more data, and we have to do it faster," Bridenstine said. "We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program. But we do, and we need to use it," he said, citing television personality Bill Nye for the comparison.
He also attempted to portray planetary defense as on par and intertwined with other key NASA priorities, including its timeline of landing humans on the moon in 2024 and its plan to fly a dedicated mission to Jupiter's moon Europa to look for life.
Bridenstine also pointed to two ongoing asteroid missions, the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft visiting Ryugu and NASA's own OSIRIS-REx probe at Bennu. Both are science missions; NASA's first-ever planetary defense mission will be the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, scheduled to launch in 2022. But Bridenstine argued that both Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx will still provide vital information and proof-of-concept for planetary defense work merely by conducting science work.
"So, that's why we do those missions," he said. "Yes, it's about science, it's about discovery, it's about exploration, but one of the reasons we do those missions is so that we can characterize those objects to protect, again, the only planet we know to host life."
- Humanity Will Slam a Spacecraft into an Asteroid in a Few Years to Help Save Us All
- Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space
- Wow! Asteroid Ryugu's Rubbly Surface Pops in Best-Ever Photo
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.