Protecting Earth From Asteroids
Ten years ago, when asteroid 2001 YB5 came within 500,000 miles of Earth, scientists worried out loud.
This week, when asteroid 2005 YU55 came within half that distance, they were excited about getting a close-up look.
The difference? 2001 YB5 was detected just two weeks before it flew by at 68,000 miles per hour. 2005 YU55 was picked up a year ago - part of the legacy of the late Dr. Eleanor Helin '54, who helped set up Jet Propulsion Laboratory'sNear Earth Asteroid Tracking program in 1995.
Helin credited Occidental Professor Joe Birman with inspiring her to take up the study of geology, which eventually led to her pioneering career as an astronomer searching for space objects that potentially could threaten our planet. Helin was credited with discovering or co-discovering 872 asteroids - about 10 percent of the more than 8,300 charted to date.
At a time when few women entered the sciences, Helin landed a job at Caltech as custodian for its meteorite collection, which in turn led to her work at the country's first lunar laboratory. By 1970, she was a participant in the Palomar Observatory's Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey, and in 1995 became the principal investigator for JPL's tracking efforts.
While the solar system is home to millions of asteroids, relatively few are known to pass near Earth. Should one actually collide with the planet, the consequences could be enormous: the object that struck the earth 65 million years ago left a crater 110 miles wide in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
A 1998 inductee into the Women in Science and Technology Hall of Fame, Helin is credited with several comets as well as hundreds of asteroids. Asteroid 3267 Glo is named for her ("Glo" was her nickname). She was the recipient of NASA's Exceptional Service Medal and JPL's Award of Excellence.