How Is Earth Protected From Threatening Asteroids?

The Asteroid Institute of the B612 Foundation researches asteroids that pose a threat on humankind.

How much of a danger do asteroids pose to your everyday life?

Thanks to men and women like Ed Lu of the Asteroid Institute of the B612 Foundation, humans are a little more protected from the out-of-the-world dangers.

“Let's just say that you lived to be about 100 years old. That means there's about a one part in 10,000 chance that during your lifetime human civilization ends due to an asteroid impact,” the former NASA astronaut told

An asteroid is a remnant of a planet, he explained. 

“Most of these are rocks – some small, some large, some are made out of metal – but mostly, they’re objects, little tiny planets if you’d like, orbiting the sun,” said Lu, the organization's executive director. “Some of them are extraordinarily small, literally grains of sand. Some of them are quite large, the size of mountains.”

While small in comparison to planets, asteroids are mighty. Lu explained they travel 10 or 15 miles per second – about three or five times faster than an average space shuttle – and can cause quite a bit of damage upon impact with Earth.

“If you have a rock that is, call it the size of a large building, but moving at three times the speed of the space shuttle, that'll take out a large city,” he said.

That’s where Lu and his team intervene. Their job is to discover, identify and track distant asteroids, then predict how they will travel to see if one could become a threat to the Earth and human existence.

“The goal is to find and track the majority – not every one – but the majority of those asteroids,” he said. “The ones that would be 100 to 200 football stadium size and up, we should have a good handle on most of those within 10 years.”

Once they are able to identify and track the asteroids that may be a threat, they focus on making sure they never collide with our planet.

“Deflecting an asteroid is actually relatively straightforward if you do this more than 10 years ahead of time,” he said. “It turns out that you don't need to nudge it off its trajectory by very much at all. In fact, a ridiculously tiny amount to make it miss the Earth.”

And, it’s as simple as sending a small spacecraft in its direction and giving it a gentle tap.

“That’s it. End of story. You’re done,” he said.

And even though the idea of humans protecting ourselves against dangers in outer space seems like something out of a science fiction movie, Lu says the concept is very real and example of how humankind continues to advance our society.

“We, human beings, now, for the first time, have it within our grasp to protect ourselves from something, a process that's been happening on this planet for billions of years,” he said. “This concept of engineering the solar system to keep celestial bodies from hitting the Earth is kind of amazing. I'm amazed by it, by myself, even though I'm in it.”