Reviewed by: Casey Suire
Title: A History of Near-Earth Objects Research
Authors: Erik M. Conway, Donald K. Yeomans, and Meg Rosenburg
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Format: Paperback / free PDF or EPUB
Publisher: NASA History Division
Date: July, 2022
Retail price: $15.99/Free
The Chicxulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. The Tunguska event in 1908. The meteor that hit Chelyabinsk in 2013. Three infamous examples of Earth being attacked by an object from space. Could it happen again? What is the difference between asteroids, comets, and meteors? How bad will an impact be? Will it be an extinction event? Can anything be done to prevent this?
Luckily, A History of Near-Earth Objects Research provides answers to these disturbing questions. The book focuses on near-earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets that pass very close to Earth. From the discovery of the first NEO, asteroid 433 Eros, in 1898, to today’s more advanced NEO search efforts, the book covers a lot of ground. In early 2016, NASA formed the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in order to deal with the threat of a NEO hitting Earth.
The book does an excellent job of describing various robotic space missions relevant to NEO research. Without a doubt, the most interesting spacecraft discussed is NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test). At the time of the book’s publication, DART was an ongoing mission, a project of NASA’s PDCO, and a true test of planetary defense. On September 26, 2022, the spacecraft intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, a small asteroid that orbits another asteroid named Didymos, in order to change the trajectory of Dimorphos. While neither asteroid poses any risk to Earth, the results of DART’s collision is helping teach scientists how to change the trajectory of a dangerous NEO in the future.
Other notable spacecraft include: NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker (asteroids 433 Eros and 253 Mathilde), ESA’s Rosetta (comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko), and JAXA’s Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 (asteroids 25143 Itokawa and 162173 Ryugu, respectively). There is also NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, which studied asteroid 101955 Bennu. In 2022, NASA announced an extension of the mission called OSIRIS-APEX that will be sent to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis. While this new mission is not mentioned in A History of Near-Earth Objects Research, the book does have a lot to say about Apophis, as it will make a close approach to Earth on April 13, 2029.
As with most space history books, A History of Near-Earth Objects Research is an account of talented individuals making incredible discoveries. Readers will learn about dozens of scientists working to protect Earth from NEOs. Astronomers Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, Eleanor Helin, and Tom Gehrels are among the most intriguing figures in the book. Other prominent individuals include co-author Donald Yeomans and Lindley Johnson, NASA’s first Planetary Defense Officer and current program executive of PDCO.
Space enthusiasts will not be surprised by the heavy use of acronyms in the book. Examples include: CCD, GEODSS, NEAT, NEODyS, NEOWISE, PACS, Pan-STARRS, PCAS, WISE, etc. Inexperienced space readers might find this somewhat confusing. Thankfully, however, the book has a section that explains the meaning of such terms. There is also an appendix that explains how asteroids and comets are named.
Like NASA, the National Space Society is involved with planetary defense efforts. According to the NSS website, it is important to study asteroids because they “can make us extinct” and “can make us rich and provide homes for trillions of people.” It is worth pointing out that NSS supports NASA’s proposed Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, a space telescope that will search for asteroids and comets that could potentially harm our planet. While the book is primarily about the hazards of NEOs, there is one chapter about using asteroids as resources for human space activities. In the Acknowledgments section, the authors note that the NSS online library was used for accessing documents relevant to the book.
Credit must be given to the authors for writing such an impressively detailed and informative book. The book is clearly well-researched, and there are footnotes at the bottom of almost every page. Only rarely does the book get something wrong. For instance, on July 4, 2005, NASA had their own version of a fireworks display by crashing the Deep Impact spacecraft into comet Tempel 1. While one section of the book gets this right, a later section incorrectly claims this occurred in 2006. Also, in one chapter, NASA’s 2010 budget was claimed to be $18.7 billion. Two chapters later, this same budget was stated as $21 billion. Overwhelmingly, however, the book is very accurate.
A History of Near-Earth Objects Research is a 2022 release by NASA’s History Division. Over the last six decades, the space agency has published over 200 works. These books are a great resource for anyone wanting to understand NASA’s activities. A History of Near-Earth Objects Research is no exception. It makes a solid case that planetary defense should be a top priority for NASA.
© 2022 Casey Suire
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