Mission Asteroid explores future impact of space rocks

If a killer asteroid threatens Earth, stopping it may involve sending human astronauts to divert it, suggests a new documentary that premieres April 3, 2014.

Watch April 3, 9 p.m. on CBC-TV's Doc Zone

Mission Asteroid shows that asteroids can be humans' biggest threat, but could also be a stepping stone for human space travel into deep space. (Doc Zone/CBC-TV)

If a killer asteroid threatens Earth, stopping it may involve sending human astronauts to divert it.

The new documentary Mission Asteroid looks at how scientists are preparing for the ultimate natural disaster, and the role asteroids will play in the future of human civilization.

The mission in the title is two-fold, said director Jeff Thrasher in an interview in Toronto.

"One [part] is to stop asteroids from hitting us," he said. "And the second part is to send humans to asteroids, to explore them and to potentially figure out how use them to take humans even further."

A major asteroid strike would set off a fiery explosion many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, scientists say in the new documentary. It will air on CBC-TV's Doc Zone April 3 at 9 p.m., after being postponed due to the death of Nelson Mandela.

Even the space rock just 19 metres wide that hit Chelyabinsk, Russia, earlier this year exploded with the force of about 40 Hiroshima-type atom bombs, and injured more than 1,600 people. 

An asteroid just 140 metres wide could destroy a large city.

Fortunately, to Thrasher's surprise, scientists already believe they have the technology to stop such a killer asteroid from hitting the Earth.

Mock asteroid exploration

One of the potential solutions involves sending astronauts to the potentially hazardous asteroid, to plant a rocket that would allow the asteroid to be remotely controlled and diverted away from Earth.

Jeff Trasher, director of Mission Asteroid, is seen here at the Haughton-Mars crater on Devon Island in Nunavut, created by a huge, ancient meteor impact. (First Canyon Media Inc.)

The documentary follows scientists and astronauts as they study and practise such techniques in extreme asteroid-like environments on Earth such as the Mojave Desert and an undersea research station, as well as in NASA labs that simulate the experience of travelling to an asteroid using techniques such as virtual reality.

"Sending humans to asteroids is incredibly dangerous," Thrasher said. "They're treacherous things. They spin kind of rapidly, they're travelling very fast through space, and the surfaces are all varied, they can be kind of gravelly."

Nevertheless, learning how to explore an asteroid has become more of a priority for NASA since 2010, when U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.

The documentary also shares the perspective of entrepreneurs in the private sector who see asteroids as a source of potential riches. They have plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources such as platinum, and fuel for spacecraft and space stations.

Thrasher said that ultimately, asteroids may potentially play two contrasting roles in the future of human civilization.

"They can be humans' biggest threat," he said. "But [they] could also be our potential salvation…the stepping stone to travel into deep space."

Mission Asteroid was commissioned for CBC-TV’s Doc Zone, and produced by Toronto-based First Canyon Media Inc.,in partnership with the CBC, the Canada Media Fund and Rogers Telefund.

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