They are scenes popular in Hollywood blockbusters: huge asteroids slamming into Earth. Cameras have caught real-life strikes, though on a much smaller scale. Most notably was the meteor that struck in Russia earlier this year. It caught the world by surprise.
'If we're going to keep something from impacting Earth or keep something from being a threat to Earth, we got to know that it's there," said NASA Chief Charles Bolden.
Bolden stopped by La Canada Flintridge's JPL campus to talk about the agency's latest mission to put astronauts on an asteroid by the year 2021.
But as for protecting the Earth from a civilization-killing space boulder, Bolden said, "I'm not going to see that in my lifetime as the NASA administrator, for certain."
Fortunately, Bolden says a massive asteroid probably won't hit us within the next 100 years. But if he's wrong, the outlook isn't pretty.
"If we had an asteroid that we determined was on its way and it was going to hit New York, what would we do? Nothing. We have no capability to prevent that asteroid from striking wherever it's going to strike on Earth," said Bolden.
Before NASA can save humanity from a killer asteroid, it first has to study the asteroids up close. That's what this mission is all about. NASA scientists are working on a spacecraft that will fly millions of miles into deep space, capture an asteroid with a huge net and then guide it back toward Earth, leaving it in orbit around the moon, where astronauts can examine it in person.
"Any time that you can get up close to an asteroid and understand its composition and its characteristics, that's getting to know the enemy," said Don Yeomans with the NASA Near Earth Objects Program.
To power this mission, JPL has developed a cutting-edge ion propulsion system that's powered by beams of electrically charged atoms instead of conventional fuel.
"Space is big, asteroids are heavy. This electric propulsion system will be the most advanced in-space propulsion system ever built," said JPL Propulsion engineer John Brophy.
Even with that system, the trip to the asteroid and back will take as long as eight years. In the meantime, don't expect much help from NASA should a huge asteroid heads your way.