Sciency Words: The Torino Scale

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Are you worried about an asteroid or comet smashing into Earth and annihilating human civilization?  Well, you should be worried about that a little bit.  But only a little bit.  Let me tell you about the Torino Scale, and while that won’t put all your fears to rest, it may help put things in perspective.

In the late 1990’s, M.I.T. Professor Richard Binzel came up with a system which he initially called the Near Earth Object Hazard Index.  In 1999, Binzel presented his system to a conference on Near Earth Objects (N.E.O.s) in Torino, Italy.

People at that conference loved Binzel’s idea and voted that the system should be adopted by the scientific community at large. They also voted to rename Binzel’s system the Torino Scale.

The Torino Scale asks two questions about any given N.E.O.: how likely is it to hit us, and how much destructive energy would be released if it did?  Taking those two factors into consideration, the Torino Scale then produces a score between zero and ten.  Zero means we have nothing to worry about.  Ten means “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!  AAAHHHHHH!!!” as the experts would say.

According to Wikipedia, the comet that caused the Tunguska Event would have probably scored an eight, and the asteroid that caused the K-T Event (the event widely believed to have killed off the dinosaurs) would have scored a ten.  Wikipedia also tells me that the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor would have scored a zero, because while that particular N.E.O. was definitely on a collision course with Earth, it’s destructive energy was relatively low (I wonder if the residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, agree with that assessment).

As of this writing, there are no known N.E.O.s that score higher than zero on the Torino Scale, as least not according to this website from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  It is possible for an N.E.O.’s threat level to change as we learn more about it.  As explained in this article from NASA:

The change will result from improved measurements of the object’s orbit showing, most likely in all cases, that the object will indeed miss the Earth. Thus, the most likely outcome for a newly discovered object is that it will ultimately be re-assigned to category zero.

Sooner or later, another eight, nine, or ten on the Torino Scale will come along.  Fives, sixes, and sevens could also be bad news for us.  But for now, at least within the next one hundred years, it sounds like we probably don’t have too much to worry about.


The Economics of Space

As you may have heard, the economy is in bad shape.  Some people say it’s getting better, others say it’s getting worse, but it seems everyone agrees it’s not as good as it needs to be.  As much as people like to blame President Bush and/or President Obama, this isn’t only an issue for the United States but for the whole world.  The solution to this global economic problem may lie in space.

A team of researchers in Glasgow, Scotland have been studying the list of Near Earth Objects (a.k.a. NEOs), the asteroids that tend to come dangerously close to Earth.  Scientists watch these NEOs so that we’ll have some early warning if any of them threaten to collide with our planet.  It’s an effort to save lives, but now it may also help save the economy.

The Glasgow researchers have identified twelve NEOs that they believe we could capture using existing technology.  These asteroids contain many valuable resources.  Some, like iron, nickel, and cobalt, we’ve all heard of, but asteroids may also provide traces of rare elements like neodymium and erbium which are essential for all our fancy electronics.  Those twelve asteroids could be worth a small (or perhaps not-so-small) fortune.

In our current economy, we can only tap the resources here on Earth, and those resources are limited.  Capturing NEOs allows us to expand our pool of resources, but that’s only the first step toward taking advantage of everything space has to offer.  The Moon has a plentiful supply of helium-3, which one day we might be able to use as a carbon-free, radiation-free fuel.  Colonizing Mars would open up a whole new real estate market and help alleviate Earth’s overcrowding problem.  And if just twelve asteroids are worth so much money, imagine what we could do with the hundreds of thousands of them out in the asteroid belt.


In his Asteroid Wars novels, Ben Bova wrote about a future where major corporations squabble over the wealth of the Solar System.  Freelance prospectors fly out to the asteroid belt hoping to claim a big lump of metal and minerals for themselves.  Some of these prospectors get rich, others get killed, and big business, now armed with lasers, gets more and more violent.  In space, individual and corporate greed go unchecked by any form of law enforcement.  It’s as dangerous as the Wild West.  Perhaps more so.

I had once hoped that our scientists would lead the human race into space, driven by the desire for exploration and discovery.  Now it seems increasingly likely that businessmen will take the next giant leap for mankind.  We can only hope that things don’t turn out like in Ben Bova’s novels.