Category Archives: Environment

Mercury rising in Punjab and Haryana climate change a real concern, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has found that, since 1980, temperatures have been increasing in Punjab and Haryana while there is a decrease in rainfall in both states. The findings are based on the analysis of quantified data,collected over a 30 year period, from 1980 to 2010.

The data shows that in Punjab, there is a rise of 0.3 degrees Celsius to 0.9 degrees Celsius in maximum temperature and a 0.3 degrees Celsius to 1.2 degrees Celsius increase in minimum temperature over the last 30 years. In Haryana, there is a rise of 0.3 to 0.6 degrees Celsius in maximum temperature with no significant change in the minimum during the same period.

Sunlight May Turn Jet Exhaust Into Toxic Particles

Airports can pose a far bigger threat to local air than previously recognized, thanks to the transformative power of sunlight.

In the first on-tarmac measurements of their kind, researchers have shown that oil droplets spewed by idling jet engines can turn into particles tiny enough to readily penetrate the lungs and brain.

Allen Robinson of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and his team collected the pollution spewed from a plane powered by one of the most common types of commercial jet engines as it operated at different loads. Though jet engines operating at full power produce mostly solid particles, at low engine loads — such as when a plane idles at the gate or on the runway — emissions are predominantly in the form of microscopic droplets.


The researchers piped the engine’s exhaust into a 7-cubic-meter covered Teflon bag. When the bag was full the researchers uncovered it, allowing sunlight to fire up chemical reactions that would normally occur in the open air.

Within minutes solid particles were generated by interactions between the oily microdroplets and gases. “Driving this chemistry,” Robinson notes, “was hydroxyl radical,” or OH — the oxidant that’s most effective at catalyzing the breakdown of oily hydrocarbons. “To create this hydroxyl radical, you need sunlight,”

via Wired Science

Greenpeace Downgrades Apple to 9th Spot in Guide to Greener Electronics

Apple has dropped to 9th place from 5th, in the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics with the same score of 4.9 for failing to provide a public position on its support for immediate restrictions in RoHS 2.0 on organo- chlorine and bromine compounds.
Greenpeace believes “Apple does best on the toxic chemicals criteria, where it scores most of its points.”
The non-profit organization acknowledges that, at the moment, all but one of Apple’s gadgets free of PVC vinyl plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). PVC-free power cords shipped to countries where their safety certification process is still ongoing are the exception.
Apple continues to score full marks for this, Greenpeace notes.
“Apple scores points for its chemicals policy informed by the precautionary principle and for lobbying the EU institutions for a ban on PVC, chlorinated flame retardants and BFRs during the current revision of the EU’s RoHS Directive (Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electronics), but for full marks it needs to provide a public position on its support for immediate restrictions in RoHS 2.0 on organo- chlorine and bromine compounds,” the environmentalists add.
“It also needs to clarify its stance regarding the position of the trade federation TechAmerica on further immediate restrictions and in particular PVC and BFRs,” Greenpeace claims.
One measly point was gained by Apple on information about its management of chemicals and its supply chain communications.
According to Greenpeace, “this criterion evaluates disclosure of information flow in the supply chain.”
Finally, the organization again noted that Apple wasn’t doing a great job at providing the least amount of information about its future toxic chemical phase-out plans.
“Apple also continues to score poorly for the minimal information it provides about its future toxic chemical phase-out plans.”

Disaster Management is it an option? fine day of my life and I get a message from the academic department about a whole day workshop on Disaster management. The very first reaction to such sms is WTF. But that is just out of instinct and we have a habit of saying these three words whenever a message about any acadamic activity come. All being said I came to the class just to see almost everyone there (this is a mandate for all).
Disaster management is a logical thing and should be inculcated in
all. It is a must for a country like India which is most of it is unorganized, uneducated, confused and at times totally unaware. There have been several incidents of disasters like the earthquake in Gujrat, cyclone in Orissa, flood and terrorist attacks in Mumbai and many more uncountable incidents.
Whenever there is such a workshop, it just is looked upon as a useless activity  because people fail to understand that what ever they are seeing on TV or reading in papers can effect them too. Once this awareness is spread that any one can be effected by these disasters, it would help people understand the gravity and motivate them towards learning the ways of safeguarding themselves as well as others.
The major issue with a developing country is the population, the unawareness and lack of education and to top it all people just dont want to learn how to safeguard them because they just think that they wont face any disaster themselves. What they fail to understand the disaster doesnt select the people and then come, a disaster of any type can happen anywhere. There was a time when there were a lot of small awareness program on TV which I saw while growing up but still that can not account for a formal education on disaster management.
Every school or college should incorporate such a program in form of workshops.

Ever since the end of days of Doordarshan and advent of cable TV there has been a dearth of awareness programs for any kind of disaster and accident awareness. This calls for a strict action to make such a program a mandate for every person and unless done so it would very difficult for a country like India to recover from and mitigate disasters.

Save water – Play Holi with dry colors

Come Holi, the Hindu festival of colours, and many people confine themselves, even lock themselves up to run away from the scourge of synthetic colours. Most holi colours available in the market contain oxidized metals or industrial dyes mixed with engine oil, which are dangerous for the skin. The black colour, for instance, is made of lead oxide, green from copper sulphate, silver from aluminium bromide and red from mercury sulphite. These chemicals can cause allergy, temporary blindness, renal failure, skin cancer and even paralysis. It can even prove fatal. The dangerous side-effects of holi colours can ruin the spirit of the festival.

Apart from that a lot of water is wasted and this post of ours is dedicated to the “Save Water” cause.



Stop! how much more will you play



Organic Cotton – Now I know what it is!

What is “organic cotton?” cotton is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-party certification organizations verify that organic producers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production. Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. In addition, federal regulations prohibit the use of genetically engineered seed for organic farming.

Ecological Footprint
Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Other environmental consequences of the elevated use of chemicals in the non organic cotton growing methods consist of:

* High levels of agrochemicals are used in the production of non-organic, conventional cotton. Cotton production uses more chemicals per unit area than any other crop and accounts in total for 16% of the world’s pesticides.
* Chemicals used in the processing of cotton pollute the air and surface waters.
* Residual chemicals may irritate consumers’ skin.
* Decreased biodiversity and shifting equilibrium of ecosystems due to the use of pesticides.


Cotton growers who make the transition to biologically based growing practices expect to not only offer a healthier and cleaner product, but to also benefit the planet. Some of the contributions to the different ecosystems include:

* Protecting surface and groundwater quality (eliminating contaminants in surface runoff)
* Reduced risk insect and disease control by replacing insecticide with the manipulation of ecosystems
* Long-term prevention of pests through beneficial habitat planting.
* Conservation of biodiversity
* Eliminate the use of toxic chemicals used in cotton
* Organically grown crops also yield soils with higher organic matter content, thicker topsoil depth, higher polysaccharide content, and lower modulus of rupture; therefore reducing considerably soil erosion.

Switching to CFLs A Personal Viewpoint

A Viewpoint

Just a few years ago when these light bulbs were becoming mainstream, it was really a toss up between spending the money for one of these or just getting a couple of dozen incandescent bulbs instead. But as sales of these new fangled bulbs increased, prices began to drop. And as of the day you read this article, it has now become more cost effective to stop using a regular bulb and switch over to energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Whoever switches to compact fluorescents will save, perhaps, hundreds of dollars per year in electrical costs, depending on usage. Those are solid savings to be sure. But you cannot see it in your pocket, and you never will unless you calculate the savings bill by bill.  To see the dollar signs I mention above, you would need to add up the money over the course of the year!

In reality, it was always more cost effective to switch over, since CFLs last about 10 to 12 times longer than a regular incandescent bulb. The problem has always been between pocket money and saving money.

The biggest advantage to these bulbs is this. You can get these in package deals for less than 3 bucks a bulb, and they will last for years without needing to be replaced.  So, you won’t have to change them as often, and that’s the biggest advantage. Why…? Well, believe it or not, there are several hundred confirmed injuries every year resulting from someone changing a light bulb (particularly the bulbs that need to be reached by either a step stool or a ladder).  I mean, let’s face it folks, if you change a standard light bulb 2 or 3 times a year on a ladder or stool, imagine changing that same bulb once every 4 or 5 years.  You can see where I am going with this.

You see, I use CFLs, and they involve less hassle.  I rarely change them, and since they save me both time and money, these bulbs are the right choice for this guy!

One caution though… beware of cheap CFLs without warranty… Most of good brands come with 1 year replacement warranty and are available within 200 INR

CFLs come in many shapes and sizes. When purchasing CFLs, consult the seller for recommendations and consider the following:
• Choose the color temperature, if listed, that’s right for you; for example:
Approx. 2700K = Warm White (looks just like incandescent)
Approx. 5000K = Cool White (white/blue, often higher CRI)
• Choose the shape. CFLs are available in a variety of shapes to fit a range of lamps and lighting fixtures. See below on this page for the most popular CFL shapes.

• Match lumens to the incandescent being replaced. Lumens indicate the amount of light being generated. (Watts is a measure of energy use, not light strength.) To compare lumens and watts see chart below:

.Incandescent Watts….CFL Watt range… . . … .. Lumen Range
8 – 10
13 – 18
18 – 22
23 – 28
34 – 42

Although CFLs are an excellent source of energy-efficient lighting, they are not always the best choice for all lighting applications. Here are a few limitations to consider:

* On/Off cycling: CFLs are sensitive to frequent on/off cycling. Their rated lifetimes of 10,000 hours are reduced in applications where the light is switched on and off very often. Closets and other places where lights are needed for brief illumination should use incandescent or LED bulbs.
* Dimmers: Dimmable CFLs are available for lights using a dimmer switch, but check the package; not all CFLs can be used on dimmer switches. Using a regular CFL with a dimmer can shorten the bulb life span.
* Timers: Most CFLs can be used with a timer, however some timers have parts which are incompatible with CFLs; to check your timer, consult the timer package or manufacturer. Using an incompatible timer can shorten the life of a CFL bulb.
* Outdoors: CFLs can be used outdoors, but should be covered or shaded from the elements. Low temperatures may reduce light levels – check the package label to see if the bulb is suited for outdoor use.
* Retail lighting: CFLs are not spot lights. Retail store display lighting usually requires narrow focus beams for stronger spot lighting. CFLs are better for area lighting.
* Mercury content: CFLs contain small amounts of mercury which is a toxic metal. This metal may be released if the bulb is broken, or during disposal. New ‘Alto’ CFL bulbs are now available with low-mercury content. These low-mercury CFLs are available at our online store. For more information about mercury and CFLs, see below.

sources and

What To Do Before the Asteroid Strikes

The doomsday rock is out there. It’s just a matter of time…

A massive crater on earth created by an asteroid hit [NASA]

In 2004, as a massive tsunami roiled through the Indian Ocean killing hundreds of thousands of people, a dozen or so scientists quietly confronted an impending disaster potentially even more lethal. They had inside intelligence that a chunk of rock and metal, roughly 1,300 feet wide, was hurtling toward a possible collision with the most populated swath of Earth—Europe, India, and Southeast Asia. Furiously crunching numbers on their computers, the researchers put the odds of impact in the year 2029 at exactly those of hitting the number in a game of roulette: 1 in 37.

“We usually deal with one chance in a million,” recalls Steven Chesley at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This was absolutely extraordinary—I didn’t expect to see anything like it in my career.” By the end of the day on December 27, 2004, to the relief of the observers, archival data turned up trajectory information that rendered the odds of a collision nil. Nonetheless, in 2029 the asteroid, dubbed Apophis—derived from the Egyptian god Apep, the destroyer who dwells in eternal darkness—will zoom closer to Earth than the world’s communications satellites do. And April 13, 2036, it will return—this time with a 1-in-45,000 chance of hitting somewhere on a line stretching from the Pacific Ocean near California to Central America.

Because Apophis was discovered during one of the world’s greatest natural disasters, the worries about the impact went largely unnoticed. But that tense day, December 26, 2004, stunned the small group of astronomers who dutifully detect and plot trajectories of hundreds of thousands of the millions of chunks of rock whizzing around the solar system. Though too small to end civilization—unlike the asteroid that may have doomed the dinosaurs—Apophis could pack a punch comparable to a large nuclear weapon. Traveling at 28,000 miles per hour, it would heat up as it passed through Earth’s atmosphere, turning the dark rock into a fiery sun as it arced across the sky. Then it would either explode just aboveground—as one most likely did in 1908, leveling a vast forest in the Tunguska region of Siberia—or gouge a crater 20 times its size. “If it hit London, there would be no London,” says Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who had closely followed the discussion of the potential 2029 impact. Slamming into the ocean, Apophis could create a tsunami dwarfing the

Apophis is one of millions of asteroids roaming the solar system. None are known to pose an immediate threat, but some are bona fide civilization stompers. A monster rock discovered just this year, with the prosaic name of 2007PA8, is more than two miles across, large enough to wipe out most of humanity. Fortunately, the odds that it will hit are essentially zero. Smaller asteroids are less deadly but much more common. Planetary scientists now estimate that 150-foot-wide space rocks, comparable to the one that hit Tunguska, strike only once every thousand years or so. For a brief time in 2004, just months before the Apophis scare, astronomers feared that a 150-foot-wide asteroid was just days away from racing into the atmosphere. Fast-paced observations allowed them to calculate a more exact orbital path, which took it far from Earth.After a number of false starts, such potential close calls have finally caught the attention of the U.S. Congress. At the request of lawmakers, scientists are struggling to pinpoint 90 percent of all seriously life-threatening asteroids by 2020 in order to assure at least some warning. The European Space Agency is contemplating a mission to test ways to push such an object off a threatening trajectory, the first serious attempt at developing a planetary defense.

But a group of astronauts, led by Schweickart, also wants their respective countries and the United Nations to prepare for avoiding a hit. “We’re living in a shooting gallery,” he warns. “We’ve evolved to the point where we can do something about this threat. We can either close our eyes as we cross the street and not know what we’ve dodged, or we can open our eyes and act accordingly.”

Amid fears about global warming, terrorism, disease, and nuclear proliferation, the threat of rocks from space may seem more the province of bad Hollywood movies than front-page news. Even professional astronomers have long dismissed asteroids as undistinguished flotsam and jetsam, would-be planets that circle the sun endlessly in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Their derision left the field of asteroid hunting largely to amateurs and eccentrics.

Only recently have researchers glimpsed the dangers lurking in our deceptively quiet neighborhood. “Impacts are a fact of life in the universe, but when we look up, it’s not what we see,” says Carolyn Shoemaker, who, together with her late husband, Gene, pioneered ways of spotting asteroids and comets. It was geologists who first noticed the evidence of huge impact craters on Earth that had formed long after the solar system settled into its present form, prompting biologists to speculate on whether those collisions dramatically altered life’s evolution. Later, using new technologies on the ground as well as robotic spacecraft, scientists like Shoemaker started to track, catalog, and closely examine the objects.

With each new sighting, asteroids turn out to be far more varied, unruly, and bizarre than astronomers dreamed. Many have companions. Some are rubble heaps held together only loosely by their own gravity. Others are extremely dense nickel-iron objects. Their colors can range from a deep dark chocolate to a glinty white. Even the old distinction between comets (dirty snowballs) and asteroids (hard rocks) has become blurred. Some comets eventually turn into asteroids as they burn off their ice and lose their tails while traveling through the warm inner solar system. And comets—which mostly reside in the solar system’s far fringes—pop up occasionally in the asteroid belt. They may even be directly responsible for life on Earth. Donald Yeomans, who calculates the orbits for near-Earth objects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that comets flung out from that belt pummeled our planet shortly after its formation and could have left behind water, possibly creating the conditions that allowed Earth to become a cradle for life.

The vast bulk of asteroids—millions of individual objects ranging from 560-mile-wide Ceres to pea-size pieces of space shrapnel—reside in a broad zone between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the legendary asteroid belt. If pulled together, all this material would form a mass smaller than Earth’s moon, but the immense gravitational force of Jupiter prevents the bits from coalescing into a solid planet. When the rocks approach Jupiter, the occasional asteroid can find itself pushed out of the procession and into deep space; some spin out beyond Pluto’s orbit, while others fall toward the sun, each with its own unique orbit. Some even find a home around other planets. Mars’s two moons, Phobos and Deimos—along with several of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s satellites—may be captured asteroids.

The NEAR-Shoemaker probe made the first detailed study of a near Earth asteroid in 2001 [NASA}

The NEAR-Shoemaker probe made the first detailed study of a
near-Earth asteroid in 2001.

Image courtesy of NASA/JHAUPL

What most interests and worries scientists like Chesley and Yeomans, however, are near-Earth asteroids—those with orbits disconcertingly close. Members of this class apparently ushered the dinosaurs off the evolutionary stage 65 million years ago and left a three-quarter-mile-wide hole in the Arizona desert less than 50,000 years ago. A few scientists think a near-Earth asteroid on a bull’s-eye path might even have reshaped human history (see “Did a Comet Cause the Great Flood?”). Somewhere in space, one of their kind is orbiting its way to an inevitable rendezvous with Earth: The question isn’t if we will be struck again, but when. There are scattered reports of deaths by meteorites through recorded history, like a Chinese chronicle asserting that thousands died during a 1490 meteor shower. One prediction is indisputable: With growing populations comes greater risk. Had the 1908 impact in Siberia landed in an urban area, for example, it would have been as devastating as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Yet it wasn’t until the early 1970s that anyone seriously pursued how to track these potentially deadly objects. A few pioneers like the Shoemakers began to catalog the faint smudges on the glass plates they used to photograph the night sky. University of Arizona astronomer Tom Gehrels revolutionized that work by turning to charge-coupled devices, or CCDs—electronic light detectors, now common in cameras—to gather much better data than was possible using plates. In 1992, NASA set up the first formal effort to detect near-Earth asteroids.

The race was on, and it swept up a new generation of scientists, like Tim Spahr. As a graduate student at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1996, he and fellow student Carl Hergenrother noticed an asteroid the length of two football fields heading almost directly toward Earth. Further calculations showed that the object, named 1996 JA1, would pass by at less of a distance than the moon is from Earth, spawning the first widespread media coverage of an asteroid threat. “It’s the reason I have my job,” says Spahr, now director of the Minor Planet Center run by the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University in Massachusetts. “And it changed everything.”

Just two weeks after Spahr’s asteroid whizzed by, researchers at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, given the task by the military of spotting enemy spy satellites, unveiled a novel approach (pdf) for monitoring large areas of the sky using sophisticated software. The MIT group found nearly 50 asteroids within a couple of months—far faster than their competitors. “Soon the other surveys were getting their butts kicked,” recalls Spahr, who joined one of two University of Arizona teams rushing to incorporate the latest technology into their efforts.

The sudden popular interest had some embarrassing side effects. Hollywood went to work on a series of moderately ludicrous disaster movies—Deep Impact, Armageddon, and Asteroid (featuring the other guy from The Terminator). But there was also tangible progress. In 1998, Congress ordered NASA to spot all near-Earth asteroids two-thirds of a mile in diameter and larger—the ones that scientists say could wipe out civilization—by 2008. Meanwhile, the world’s space agencies began to bring their expertise to bear on the problem. Just a few months before Spahr’s discovery, NASA launched NEAR (for near-Earth asteroid rendezvous), a spacecraft to visit the near-Earth asteroid Eros. (Gene Shoemaker died while the probe was en route, and NASA renamed it NEAR-Shoemaker.) Arriving in 2000, the probe orbited for a year before controllers crashed it into Eros—but not before it sent back tens of thousands of detailed images of the 20-mile-wide banana-shaped asteroid. Eros’s surface—boulder strewn, heavily cratered, strangely smooth—was a geologic puzzle.

The Japanese got in the game too. In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa hovered a dozen miles away from a lumpy asteroid named Itokawa, then collected some material in anticipation of a 2010 return to Earth. Radio contact with the probe was lost for a while, however, and it is uncertain whether it will return to Earth.

By 2005, lawmakers in Washington asked NASA what it would take to be able to spot 90 percent of near-Earth asteroids more than 460 feet in diameter by 2020. Astronomers say that incoming asteroids smaller than that would have a regional, rather than global, effect; ones that are less than about 180 feet are likely to disintegrate in the atmosphere. “There aren’t very many huge objects, so you don’t get hit by them very often,” Spahr says. “But as you get smaller, there are more and more.”

Some researchers suggest sending nuclear weapons, Hollywood-style, to blow up the asteroid.

Finding smaller asteroids requires a whole new level of technology, and NASA is struggling to find ways to deliver the information Congress requested. Some astronomers have proposed a satellite orbiting near Venus that could easily spot asteroids that are hard to see from the ground. But NASA is in a budget crunch, so space-rock hunters are pinning their hopes on two earthbound projects. The National Science Foundation plans early in the next decade to build the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope with a 28-foot mirror. Meanwhile, aided by pork-barrel money won by a Hawaiian senator, work is under way on Pan-STARRS, a set of telescopes to be sited on Mauna Kea that will cover most of the sky every few nights down to a dim 24th order of magnitude. When these telescopes see light within the next few years, the result will be dramatic. David Morrison, a leading impact researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, predicts a hundredfold increase in discoveries, which will make Schweickart’s shooting gallery metaphor more believable. “We tend to find one scary asteroid a year,” Morrison says. “Soon it will be one a week!”

The details of Apophis’s discovery in 2004 showcase the evolving art of asteroid detection. Roy Tucker, David Tholen, and Fabrizio Bernardi spotted the object while trolling the skies at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory on Kitt Peak. Fans of the TV series Stargate SG-1, the three astronomers named the asteroid after an alien intent on destroying Earth. Science fiction, however, quickly took a turn toward reality show. At the Minor Planet Center—which absorbs asteroid data from all over the world—Spahr’s colleague Kyle Smalley took a closer look at the object’s path. “All the main-belt asteroids move across the sky in a procession,” he says. “And this thing was stepping out of line in this parade, so it caught my eye. It was obvious this thing was coming close to Earth.”

Across the continent at JPL, Steven Chesley began to fine-tune the orbit (pdf). On December 20, he placed the odds of a collision at 1 in 5,000. Three days later, with more data, those odds grew to 1 in 250. “We kind of missed Christmas that year,” he says. The odds kept getting higher as he analyzed the trajectory more thoroughly. By the day after Christmas—the day of the Indonesian tsunami—the odds reached an alarming 1 in 37. The researchers quietly plotted the likely plane along which the asteroid would pass but did not release the information to the media. If that plane intersected Earth, then the impact area would lie somewhere along a narrow band crossing the North Atlantic, Europe, and southern Asia. “We know there is an asteroid out there with our name on it,” adds Chesley. “We just didn’t expect to find one so soon.”

Then researchers poking around in the University of Arizona’s Spacewatch survey archives came to the rescue. An observation made earlier in the year shifted the asteroid’s projected path just enough to one side to spare Earth. “That ruled out the possibility of an impact conclusively,” Chesley says. He and the handful of other scientists breathed a sigh of relief. But like every near-Earth asteroid, Apophis will keep orbiting, so the risk will not go away. Although the next pass has only a 1-in-45,000 chance of colliding, future encounters could pose a greater risk. Calculating odds farther ahead is extremely difficult, though, because so many slight gravitational influences change an asteroid’s path over time.

We’re living in a shooting gallery. We’ve evolved to where we can do something about this threat.

Schweickart was deeply shaken by the Apophis experience. “I don’t know how to transmit to you the emotion, the level of intensity of a group of people you could name on two hands during those days in December 2004,” he says. His interest in the asteroid threat extended back to 2001, when he and a few colleagues sat down at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston just six weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to discuss ways to deflect an incoming asteroid. That led to his founding an organization named for the asteroid that was the home of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince—the B612 foundation. Its goal is to alter an asteroid’s orbit in a controlled manner by the year 2015.

Since the first serious asteroid scare in 1996, astronomers have pondered a multitude of ways to deflect an incoming rock. Some researchers suggest sending nuclear weapons, Hollywood-style, to blow up the asteroid; others propose a simple crash landing that would shove the body into a slightly new orbit. Another method would unfurl mirrors that would vaporize part of the rock. Two spacecraft—NEAR-Shoemaker and Hayabusa—have already played tag with asteroids, while another has experimented with shooting a projectile into a comet. Most of the proposed defense methods would require careful study of an asteroid’s composition—you might simply create a rocky doughnut by trying to blast one apart.

The European Space Agency recently took these ideas into a more concrete direction by releasing a concept for a spacecraft called Don Quixote that could push at an asteroid while another spacecraft (called Sancho, of course) hovers nearby to monitor any change in its orbit. Schweickart and his colleagues propose instead that a space tug could rendezvous with an asteroid and change its trajectory simply by using the probe’s gravitational pull. The advantage to this approach, he says, is that you don’t need to touch the asteroid or ascertain its makeup to move it out of a dangerous trajectory. The disadvantage is that the tug lacks muscle and could make only small adjustments to the orbit. The former astronaut has so far made little headway within NASA—which is focused instead on returning men to the moon—or even among many scientists who prefer to spend precious funds on asteroid detection.

So what would we have done if Apophis were on a collision course with Earth in 2029? Once Schweickart plotted the asteroid’s potential landfall, he suddenly realized the threat’s political and legal implications. If a city-busting rock were heading toward Iran, would the United States take the lead and spend billions of dollars to stop it? By nudging an asteroid off course, a probe would send it on a new trajectory. What if the probe could not complete the maneuver and shifted the threat elsewhere?

Such concerns led the ex-astronaut and Air Force pilot to tap members of an exclusive club he founded called the Association of Space Explorers—men and women who have, briefly, been near-Earth objects themselves. “This group of people can get the attention of national leaders all over the world,” Schweickart says. This January, the group wined and dined donors at a fund-raiser in Oakland, California, and they recently held a workshop in France, the first in a series to hash out a draft United Nations treaty to cope with the asteroid threat. To Schweickart, a matter of life and death trumps space science: “Do we really need to know more about a moon of Jupiter compared with being prepared to protect life on Earth?”

That attitude is bound to irritate a lot of space scientists. Yeomans, for example, insists that the three most important things to do are “find ’em early, find ’em early, and find ’em early.” NASA researchers have their own plan, the Near-Earth Object Program—the agency’s program to spot 90 percent of all potentially hazardous asteroids more than two-thirds of a mile wide that might hit Earth in the foreseeable future. Amateur astronomers, long major players in ascertaining the exact orbits of asteroids, are likely to play less and less of a role as professionals turn their powerful telescopes to the objects once considered too mundane for academics to study at all. One way or another, astronomers say they intend to find every sizable rock that might be rushing at Earth. By 2020, we should know whether we need to save ourselves from going the way of the dinosaurs. “We take our snapshot now,” Spahr says, “and we’ll be good for centuries.”