The Underfunded, Disorganized Plan to Save Earth from the Next Giant Asteroid

Man looking out over the Barringer Crater just east of Flagstaff in Northern Arizona, which was created by a meteorite measuring only 50 meters in diameter. Image: Daniel Oberhaus
It is a cold January afternoon on the peak of Mt. Bigelow, an hour’s drive north from Tucson, and the wind burns my face as I watch the colors of the desert sunset bleed into the foothills of the Catalina mountains.

By Daniel Oberhaus|MOTHERBOARD

This is the home of the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, a secluded astronomical observatory whose mission it is to discover and monitor Near Earth Objects (NEOs), comets and asteroids which pass within roughly 120 million miles of Earth’s orbit and therefore have the greatest potential to obliterate humanity.

I traveled here with Eric Christensen, a University of Arizona scientist and the principal investigator for the survey, who is letting me tag along to observe for an evening. Eric is 37, easy-going, and soft-spoken, with dark eyebrows accentuated by his shaved head. We unload groceries from his truck and haul them into the cramped combined kitchen-bedroom where he will be based for the next three nights while scanning the skies for NEOs—weather permitting, of course.

After he stores his groceries, Eric and I watch the sunset and the mass of thunderclouds amassing on the horizon. „It’s not looking good,“ he says.

Arizona gets around 300 days of clear skies a year and as luck would have it I happened to pick one of the few stormy nights to participate in an activity that demands perfect visibility.

„The effects of an impact, even a comet or asteroid of a modest size, would be devastating.“

Eric’s phone rings; it’s his four-year-old daughter calling to say goodnight. He disappears into the observatory for a few minutes and then comes back outside. He takes another look at the sky as night descends, beckoning me indoors in the hope that we might be able to run some observations before our view is totally obscured by thunderheads.

For an outpost tasked with preventing mass extinction, the pace is certainly relaxed here at Catalina.

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