The Union Recorder

February 12, 2013

Space rocks a hot topic this month

Beate Czogalla
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE —  

Our new best friend on Mars, the Curiosity rover, is currently testing its power drill for a first sample gathering task. Since the rover landed on the Red Planet, all of its equipment and tools have been checked out and passed with flying colors. Now things get serious for Curiosity’s rock-boring device.

The idea is to not only drill a hole (been there, done that with other rovers) but to actually catch some of the dust created by the drilling. The dust will then be loaded into one of Curiosity’s on board laboratories for proper analysis.

You can imagine how nerve-wracking it is when your drill operator is on another planet, and you don’t actually find out until 20 minutes later, when your radio signal has traveled to Mars and back, that it’s actually done anything — and done it in the right place! So during the actual drilling procedure, the rover is pretty much on its own, relying on its programming to complete the task. Fortunately Curiosity has a lot of artificial brain power under the hood; after all, it was designed to be smart enough to do this job.

Still, engineers have no idea how this adventure will turn out. So far Curiosity’s track record has been a long line of successes. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the newest dentist in the solar system rocks at drilling!

Rock No. 2 making the news is actually an asteroid coming uncomfortably close to Earth. As you might know, space rocks cross the Earth’s path all the time — most of them are just grains of dust, lighting up the night sky as meteors or shooting stars. Some are big enough to survive until they hit the ground as meteorites, and they may become prized collectibles. And some are so big they can literally wipe out life as we know it.

The dinosaurs — if they could talk — could tell us a thing or two about that.

On Feb. 15 a 148 foot diameter space rock called 2012 DA 14 will pass just 17,200 miles above the earth. And if that sounds like a lot, consider that it is less than the 22,000 miles distance at which geosynchronous satellites orbit. 

A little too close for comfort, maybe? Sure thing. But it shouldn’t keep you awake at night. There are people out there who get paid for this kind of insomniac job. They track these so-called Near Earth Objects (NEO for short — we do love our acronyms at NASA) and it’s their job to alert us if they calculate a possible collision.

Now, a rock of the size of 2012 DA 14 can do quite a bit of damage locally, if it were to fall on Earth, although it would most likely break apart in the atmosphere. But it wouldn’t be able to wipe us off the face of the Earth.

People on the other side of the planet will actually be able to see this rock zoom on by overhead.

For the rest of us, hey, what do you know… lullaby, and good-night…

Check out NASA’s NEO webpage at http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/. Your inner worry wart will be ecstatic.

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo.com