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B612 Foundation working to prevent 'biggest threat' possible: asteroids

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The biggest threat to Earth? Something hitting it, said Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut and chairman of the B612 Foundation.

SAN FRANCISCO -- One could make the case that the biggest threat isn't something on Earth, but something hitting the Earth, according to Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut and chairman of the B612 Foundation.

Dubbed as the "biggest environmental project imaginable," the B612 Foundation is dedicated to researching ways to prevent the next major asteroid collision.

Using the example in which an asteroid that measured roughly 10 kilometers long hit the Earth and wiped out all of the dinosaurs, Lu noted that worldwide destruction on that scale has only occurred 50 to 100 times in history.

"We are in some sense the beneficiaries of the dinosaurs being wiped out," Lu said during the TEDxNASA event during the NASA IT Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday.

However, he warned that we cannot afford to sit back and play "cosmic roulette" with this.

"If we don’t prevent this problem, the odds will catch up with us," Lu argued, "The time is now. A small group of dedicated individuals could protect the course of human history."

As demonstrated during a video presentation, scientists have been able to pinpoint approximately 8,000 known asteroids near Earth. Unfortunately, that's only one percent of the ones known to exist. Obviously, there's a lot of work ahead if we want to prevent the kind of disaster that could wipe out civilization as we know it.

So what can be done about this? Lu posited that NASA has much of the expertise and facilities that would be needed to do something like this, and we have plenty of other tools at hand that can help as well, including infrared telescopes, rockets and even just the understanding of calculus.

Lu acknowledged that an endeavor like this will end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but he argued that it wouldn't be much more in comparison to the "cost of a municipal civic project."

The B612 Foundation has broken down its plans into two parts: finding and tracking asteroids that can impact the planet, and then test technology that can deflect an asteroid.

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Rachel King

Rachel King is a staff writer for ZDNet. Previously she worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in San Francisco.