Metropolitan State University of Denver students have a new mission: preventing the Earth from being destroyed by asteroids.
No, this isn't the plot of a Bruce Willis movie remake. The Asteroid Institute, an arm of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit that describes itself as "an organization that works towards protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts and informing and forwarding world-wide decision-making on planetary defense issues," has announced a new partnership with York Space Systems and MSU Denver to create an asteroid-tracking system using what's described as a "constellation" of data-gathering satellites. And according to Chuck Beames, York's executive chairman and chief strategy officer, MSU Denver students are going to team with his crew on the project.
"We've been giving them hands-on, practical experience," says Beames, whose firm has already been collaborating with MSU Denver students on other undertakings, "and the folks at the Asteroid Institute are excited, because they're interested in data that will be collected by the satellites and what that will mean in terms of data analytics and software, which is another big push-and-thrust area for MSU Denver."
York "makes small satellites and satellite solutions for the next generation of space companies," Beames points out. "It's not much different than the transformation of the computer world when it went from mainframes to personal computers. A similar thing is going on in the satellite world, and it's happening quickly."
Satellite launches occasionally "make it into the mainstream press," he notes, "but what's really important are the payloads. They're changing the way we'll all live currently and into the future."
At MSU Denver, Beames says, "We're right on campus, on the fourth floor of the science building, and we make our satellites right there. These are industrial-grade. They're not little toys, and they can do real missions. What's exciting about it on the space side is that we're able to tackle a lot of missions that were historically done by the government. A lot of different groups are doing things like environmental monitoring and remote-sensing applications. We're excited about being on the forefront of that, and MSU Denver is very much an applied university. It's all about preparing the next generation of students for real jobs in manufacturing with a state-of-the-art curriculum. So it's a natural partnership."
It's paid off for Metro students, too: "Our internship program at MSU Denver is working very well," Beames adds. "We recently hired an intern who's now a full-time engineer with York."
The first goal of the new Asteroid Institute project "is to map all of the asteroids of a certain size in the solar system," he explains. "But this is really a map in three dimensions. It's not a flat piece of paper. Once they know the orbital trajectories of these asteroids, they can map this stuff out."
Doing so is important "for two reasons," he goes on. "One is that asteroids can be an existential threat to Earth. Just ask the dinosaurs — except we can't, since they went extinct because of asteroids. And even if an asteroid strike wasn't an extinction event, a major asteroid striking the Eastern Seaboard, for example, would be a catastrophe in which thousands of people could be killed. That's why there are folks in the government working on designs so that when we have mapping and orbital analysis a year or two from now, we'll be able to see, 'This asteroid is going to be coming close to the Earth. What can we do about that?' And if we could give it a slight nudge, that could keep it clear of our planet and keep people safe."
Such a scenario "sounds far-fetched," Beames acknowledges, "but it's not. Look at the Moon and see how many events have occurred on its surface — and it's much smaller than the Earth. A lot of asteroids are small and burn up in the atmosphere, but there are plenty that don't, and big ones could put the Earth in darkness for many years."
The other rationale for mapping is more positive. "Asteroids are rich in metals and other resources, just like any other celestial body," he says. "As humanity pushes out into the solar system, robotically at first and then through colonization, those resources will be needed — including water. So a map will help us use those resources for the extension of human exploration."
Issues like these are a big part of the Space Resources Roundtable, a planetary and terrestrial mining sciences symposium taking place today through June 15 at the Colorado School of Mines; click for further details. And they'll get even more attention on Asteroid Day, which takes place on June 30. In Beames's words, the latter is "a huge, worldwide event sanctioned by the United Nations to bring attention to asteroids in general. The day is to recognize an asteroid impact that was significant in Russia on that day over 100 years ago. The headquarters for the event will be in Luxembourg, and I'll be there."
For those who doubt the practicality of the Asteroid Institute-York-MSU Denver alliance, Beames offers a reminder that "we're near the very beginning of a revolution in space data and space utility. Look at the way a small, little signal like GPS has revolutionized car travel with Uber and Lyft. And, really, those are space data apps. So the proliferation in the coming decades of tens of thousands of these small satellites that will be providing all kinds of data of completely different types will revolutionize many different segments and sectors of the economy and democratize space in a way that's never been done before."