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Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us [Hardcover]

Donald K. Yeomans
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Book Description

11 Nov 2012

Of all the natural disasters that could befall us, only an Earth impact by a large comet or asteroid has the potential to end civilization in a single blow. Yet these near-Earth objects also offer tantalizing clues to our solar system's origins, and someday could even serve as stepping-stones for space exploration. In this book, Donald Yeomans introduces readers to the science of near-Earth objects--its history, applications, and ongoing quest to find near-Earth objects before they find us.

In its course around the sun, the Earth passes through a veritable shooting gallery of millions of nearby comets and asteroids. One such asteroid is thought to have plunged into our planet sixty-five million years ago, triggering a global catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs. Yeomans provides an up-to-date and accessible guide for understanding the threats posed by near-Earth objects, and also explains how early collisions with them delivered the ingredients that made life on Earth possible. He shows how later impacts spurred evolution, allowing only the most adaptable species to thrive--in fact, we humans may owe our very existence to objects that struck our planet.

Yeomans takes readers behind the scenes of today's efforts to find, track, and study near-Earth objects. He shows how the same comets and asteroids most likely to collide with us could also be mined for precious natural resources like water and oxygen, and used as watering holes and fueling stations for expeditions to Mars and the outermost reaches of our solar system.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (11 Nov 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691149291
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691149295
  • Product Dimensions: 23.7 x 16.3 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 594,656 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Donald K. Yeomans, Winner of the 2013 Carl Sagan Medal, American Astronomical Society

Donald K. Yeomans, One of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people 2013

"Balancing the wonders of astronomy with the looming potential for an epic, planet-wide disaster, Yeomans, a fellow and research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explores the origins of near-Earth objects--asteroids, comets, meteors, and meteoroids--and the threat they can pose to our planet. . . . Yeomans's book is an accessible and far-ranging primer on the science of near-Earth objects."--Publishers Weekly

"As Earth creaks on its course around the Sun, it is exposed to a relentless barrage of asteroids and comets. Donald Yeomans, who manages NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, offers an introduction to the science of these lethal monsters, one of which may have seen off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and created the Chicxulub crater. Yeomans shows how the threats are balanced by potential boons, such as the theoretical delivery of the building blocks of life on Earth. Can these reeling masses even become interplanetary pitstops on the road to Mars?"--Nature

"[Near Earth Objects] gives readers an inside account of the latest efforts to find, track and study life-threatening asteroids and comets."'s Observations blog

"Near-Earth Objects is a fascinating tour guide of the asteroids we should worry about."--Marcus Chown, New Scientist

"Despite its title, Near-Earth Objects offers a concise and informative overview of the formation of the entire solar system: why the planets differ, the latest theories on how they lined up and the origin of such leftovers as comets and asteroids. Yeomans also makes a good case that a near-Earth asteroid is an accessible target for our next space adventure, readying us for Mars and preparing us for a time when we might depend on them as a source of rare minerals."--Marcia Bartusiak, Washington Post

"[C]ompact and readable. . . . [Near-Earth Objects's] main goal is to invite readers to share a topic that is fascinating beyond its practical importance."--Fred Bortz, Dallas Morning News

"[Yeomans's] book offers an excellent introduction to the layperson on near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), those objects that can potentially pass within about 29 million miles of Earth as they orbit around the sun. . . . I highly recommend the book. Since it covers so many aspects of these fascinating asteroids, I found it comprehensive and a great read. While Yeomans covers a topic that some of us worry about, he provides the facts needed to stay cool yet informed."--Astro Bob blog

"Yeomans makes it seem like we're uncomfortably close to an asteroid-induced apocalypse. Luckily, he has a sense of humor about it, and he has some sensible scientific solutions."--Sarah Rothbard,

"This is a superb book that brings the reader up-to-speed on those menacing denizens of the deep--Near Earth Objects, or NEOs for short. Moreover, this book is good bedtime reading for those that stay awake at night awaiting celestial calamity."--Leonard David, Coalition for Space Exploration

"The book has an impressive from-the-horse's-mouth authority, yet it also has a pleasing, storytelling style, wry humour and some fun facts."--Hazel Muir, BBC Sky at Night

"Sixty-five million years ago, a 10-km-wide asteroid slammed into Earth, killing off the dinosaurs. While that's the best-known Earth-asteroid collision, the truth is, space debris rains down on us all the time, notes Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office. He and other scientists are on a mission to track the largest asteroids that swarm around our planet, and his book is a behind-the-scenes look at how they do it--hopefully finding them before they find us."--Maclean's Bookmarked blog

"Unlike many books involving space exploration I didn't get the feeling of fantasy, wishful thinking or sabre rattling. Yeomans just gives us good, reasoned arguments, presented in the main in a likeable, friendly fashion. . . . [I]f you are interested in astronomy, the solar system or the survival of the human race, this is a book that should spark your interest."--Brian Clegg, Popular Science

"This authoritative book, written in a lucid style well suited to intelligent laypersons, addresses this subject. . . . [E]xcellent . . ."--Choice

"Near-Earth Objects is an excellent, short, very detailed, complete reference on rocks flying through Earth-space. . . . [T]his book is highly recommended. It is a wonderful resource, very well written and full of great footnotes."--Haym Benaroya, Quest

From the Inside Flap

"This is a wonderful and timely book, not to mention a great read! Asteroids are indeed wondrous objects, and it is simply a matter of time before we find one with our address on it. Yeomans' unparalleled expertise, storytelling skills, and wry sense of humor are a savory delight. Enjoy!"--Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut

"The nearby asteroids are Earth's closest neighbors and key stepping stones for our expansion into space. Yet these rogue space rocks can also threaten our planet. Noted scientist Donald Yeomans is one of NASA's 'men in black,' keeping an eye out for wayward asteroids. He clearly explains what we know about these celestial denizens--and what discoveries will help us avoid a cosmic catastrophe."--Tom Jones, veteran astronaut, author of Sky Walking

"Many people consider near-Earth objects to be important only because they pose a threat to Earth, but there are many other reasons for studying them. This book explains why. I know of no better introduction to the subject."--Michael F. A'Hearn, University of Maryland

"This is an excellent and interesting book. I found it enjoyable and informative, and I strongly recommend it to anyone seeking a better understanding of near-Earth objects and the solar system in general."--Daniel J. Scheeres, University of Colorado at Boulder

"This is a fine book. Yeomans treats all the important aspects of his topic, including finding near-Earth objects and calculating their orbits, the broader issues of solar system origins and early evolution, the threat of impacts by near-Earth objects of various sizes, and approaches to preventing impacts from occurring. The scholarship is at a high level."--Clark R. Chapman, Southwest Research Institute

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book - good read 1 July 2013
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Don Yeomans is well known to me as an expert in the area hence I chose to purchase the book. It was what I wanted and money well spent.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nerar Earth Objects 4 April 2013
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Excellent book and great value for money as I found it very interesting, the book was despatched quickly as well.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Overview of NEOs 16 Jan 2013
By G. Poirier - Published on
In ten spellbinding chapters, the author presents a highly accessible summary of the important subject of near-earth objects. After describing the origin and structure of the solar system, he discusses the nature, composition, location, observation and tracking of near-earth objects (asteroids and comets). Of particular interest are past impacts that some of these bolides have had on the earth's surface and the resulting consequences. In view of such threats to earth and, indeed, to civilization, the author emphasizes the importance of locating and keeping track of such objects and of developing viable methods of deflecting them away from the earth should the need arise in the future.

What I found that stands out the most in this fascinating book is the prose's superb clarity. This is extremely important in a book on a technical subject. The author, a seasoned expert in this field, is able to communicate his knowledge in a very friendly, captivating, lively and straightforward way. This book can be enjoyed by any interested reader; however, I believe that science and astronomy enthusiasts would be likely to relish it the most.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly informative but requires careful reading 28 May 2013
By Joel Marks - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is jam-packed with useful and interesting information about asteroids and comets, whose significance is multifold. Thus, these objects are primordial, preserving in their composition the conditions of the very beginning of our solar system; they were almost certainly instrumental in bringing the essential ingredients of life - water and carbon-based organic molecules - to Earth; and what they giveth they also taketh away, since they are probably responsible for mass extinctions on this planet. The emphasis of the book is on those asteroids and comets that regularly or occasionally come into the vicinity of Earth's orbit, thereby posing a potential threat to our own continued existence.

For me the most salient point made by the book - and repeatedly so - is that the most dire threat to Homo sapiens comes from long-period comets, since, even though they become "near-Earth objects" with far less frequency than asteroids, they tend to give us very little advance warning of their trajectory or even existence. Thus, if one happened to have our name on it, there would likely be insufficient time for us to prepare an adequate defense against it. Add to that fact that these objects will be traveling much faster than a typical in-coming asteroid and can also be huge, and you have the makings for humanity's ultimate catastrophe.

Although Yeomans makes no bones about this sobering situation, his remarks throughout the book tend to be on the positive side. What he emphasizes is that, given a robust enough program of detecting near-Earth objects, we are in a position to defend against the vast majority of them even with present-day technology. Indeed, the achievements of the Spaceguard program and others in a very short period of time have been utterly impressive. Just decades ago we hardly even realized these objects existed, not to mention, posed an existential threat. Now we are already on the verge of cataloguing almost all of them and devising means of deflecting most of them.

Still, it is not clear if anything but good luck could ever preserve us from a "surprise" long-period comet arriving from the Oort Cloud ... such as the huge Comet Siding Spring discovered just this year (and just after Yeomans' book was published), which will narrowly miss striking Mars next year (2014). Had it been heading towards Earth instead, we would be doomed.

So much for the content of Yeomans' book, which I do recommend. But my reason for giving the book 4 stars instead of 5 has to do with its writing style. Please indulge my remarks to follow because I care about these things, even though, I must admit, the problems with Yeomans' writing may not pose a serious obstacle to understanding what he has to say. Call this an aesthetic criticism, if you will. In a nutshell: I picture Yeomans hunched over his desk like a school boy struggling to make one word follow another in his writing tablet, while the proctor stands over him with crossed arms and tapping his foot.

Problem No. 1 is the utterly flat tone of the book. Although written in a way that is clearly comprehensible by the layperson, its "emotion" befits a technical manual. This is quite jarring, because so many terrifically important and interesting matters are discussed; but from the style you would never know it. Even when Yeomans is relating a joke or a funny story, there is nothing in his telling of it that conveys the humor.

Problem No. 2 is organization. Good writing involves ordering material in a logical sequence; but Yeomans' standard method of dealing with a bunch of material seems often to be simply to dump it onto the page. Fortunately the chapter sections are short enough that the alert reader can make sense of the material. But even when Yeomans puts thing in their proper order, he may fail to help the reader discern the logic. For example, in building his case with evidence he may move from one item to the next without so much as a "furthermore," not to mention a paragraph break. It may only slowly dawn on the reader that a new subject is now being discussed. (However, Yeomans does use the word "however" a lot!)

It is odd that a scientist like Yeomans would fail to appreciate that writing, like science, involves logic and attention to detail. But even the simple mechanics of writing sometimes elude him; for example, in a single paragraph on page 109, a plural subject is paired with a singular verb in two different sentences. There are also several instances of technical details that are highly relevant to what is being discussed in the body of the text being consigned, seemingly without rhyme or reason, to a footnote.

Again, these may be largely aesthetic matters. But at times a choice (or lapse) of wording can be seriously misleading. Two examples. At the bottom of page 115 he writes, "currently the biggest potentially hazardous asteroid that can approach the Earth's orbit is (4179) Toutatis ...." This makes it sound like there is in fact nothing larger out there, or at least no larger asteroid, that could threaten us at present. But some reflection on other things the book has told us makes apparent that Yeomans is here using "currently" to imply only what we know, not what may actually exist. Thus, he should have written, "currently the biggest known potentially hazardous asteroid ...."

Perhaps the most egregious example of a stylistic or organizational lapse that could mislead the reader comes on pages 122-123 in a section entitled "Asteroid Threat? What Asteroid Threat?" The wording of the title by itself leaves unclear whether the section will be arguing that asteroids are, after all, not as big a worry as we might have thought at first, or, on the contrary, the section will be exposing a fallacious dismissal of due concern. It turns out that the body of the text presents a case for moderating our concern, and only in the fine-print note to an accompanying table does the reader learn (or would he or she learn if bothering to read it) that the argument given in the text is "misleading" (the note says "a bit misleading," which is a gross understatement given what is at stake, namely, the continued existence of our species).

All in all, then, this book deals with a tremendously important and interesting topic in a "just-the-facts, ma'am" style. For lack of a more engaging and timely alternative, I consider it to be essential reading. But the reader is also advised to read critically in order to overcome certain shortcomings of organization and emphasis in the text.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine General Introduction to the Issue of Asteroid Impact 18 May 2013
By Roger D. Launius - Published on
The premise of this book by Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Donald H. Yeomans is that of all of the threats to life on this planet, perhaps the most significant is a mass extinction coming from either a comet or asteroid impact. This seems all the more real because of the Chelyabinsk, Russia, event on February 15, 2013. In "Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us" Yeomans offers a general audience an introduction to the science of near-Earth objects--especially the history, applications, and ongoing quest to find these celestial objects before they hit Earth.

I was introduced to this reality twenty years ago at the annual meeting of this professional society when a noted scientist gave a presentation entitled "Chicken Little Was Right." He claimed that humans had a greater chance of being killed by a comet or asteroid falling from the sky than dying in an airplane crash. This is true, especially as one projects the risk over a very long period of time. Mathematical calculations confirm that every person alive today faces 1 chance in 5,000 that he or she will be killed by some type of extraterrestrial impact during his or her lifetime since several thousand meteorites, comets, and asteroids cross Earth's orbit, and many small pieces enter the atmosphere every day. One need only look at the craters on the Moon, and such wonders as Meteor Crater in Arizona, to verify the fact that solar system bodies make fine targets for comets and asteroids. More than ever before, as Yeomans's makes clear, throughout history asteroids and comets have struck Earth with destructive consequences.

The reality of a massive threat to life on Earth from space entered the public consciousness in 1980 when scientists--especially Luis and Walter Alvarez--proposed a hypothesis that dinosaurs became extinct after an asteroid or comet only six to nine miles wide left a crater 186 miles wide in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and through enough dust into the atmosphere to cause global climate change. This "K-T extinction"--occurring at the boundary between the Cretaceous period (K) and the Tertiary period (T)--has become common knowledge as the reason for the dinosaur mass extinction and it has engendered all manner of responses in popular culture. Notably, two blockbuster films in 1998--Armageddon and Deep Impact--used a potential asteroid impact as the premise for space adventures to avert a mass extinction. Additionally, some entrepreneurs have developed and sold asteroid survival kits consisting of a hard hat and surgical mask; a measure of the fact that everything in modern society is considered a commodity from which to turn a profit.

In this work Yeomans presents a compelling account of the origins of the solar system, taking notice of all of the ingredients orbiting the Sun including those smaller bodies that are attracted to larger gravitational fields and slam into them on a regular basis. Of course, comets and meteors have evolved over time and some still crash into bodies in the solar system, notably Shoemaker-Levy 9 that hit Jupiter in 1994 with spectacular results.

Some of these objects journey near Earth, and these "near-Earth objects" represent a threat that could destroy life on this planet. Yeomans lays out this story, commenting on the many known and possible impacts in history. He makes much of the destruction wrought by the famous Tunguska event in 1908 near what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, resulting from an air burst of a large meteoroid or comet only about 300 feet in diameter. By inference, something a few miles in diameter could bring about mass extinction. This prompts Yeomans to discuss how we might be able to reduce this threat with a survey to catalog and track these objects.

Understanding the reality of the impact threat that could destroy all life on this planet is a critical component of future efforts to mitigate it. Efforts to catalog all Earth-crossing asteroids, track their trajectories, and develop countermeasures to destroy or deflect objects on a collision course with Earth are important, but to ensure the survival of the species humanity must ultimately build outposts elsewhere. Astronaut John Young said it best in the November-December 2003 issue of Space Times: to paraphrase Pogo, "I have met an endangered species, and it is us." While Yeomans does not go quite this far with his discussion, it is one rational response to a very real concern.

Yeomans's book offers a strong introduction to the subject of near-Earth objects. In addition to the threat posed by these objects, the author advocates for their study for purely scientific purposes. "In terms of their chemical composition and thermal history, many of them are among the least changed members of our solar system" (p. 56). This could help scientists understand the evolution of the cosmos. Yeomans urges an aggressive exploration program to understand these small bodies, rogue or not. Thus far it is a modest program; perhaps it will grow in the future.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Introduction to the Subject! 5 Jan 2013
By Glenn Berry - Published on
This is an excellent book. Donald Yeomans does a great job explaining the different types of near-earth objects and why they are important. Many people think that that they are only important because they pose a threat to the Earth, but Yeomans discusses their history and potential importance in the future, in terms of the massive quantities of resources that we are likely to find (such as platinum and water) in NEOs. Think of the relatively new company Planetary Resources, and their credible plans to harvest these resources.

He talks extensively about the hard work that has been done finding and cataloging a very high percentage of NEOs already, and what work remains to be done. All in all, I really enjoyed this book!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program" 21 April 2013
By Stephen Pletko - Published on

"During the morning of October 6, 2008, Eastern Standard Time...[the] director of the Minor Planet Center, couldn't believe what his computer was telling him. In less than twelve hours, a near-Earth asteroid would collide with the Earth."

The above extract is found in this informative and accessible book by Donald Yeomans. He is a fellow and senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he's manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Project Office. Yeomans is in the company of such people as Einstein, Bach, and the Beatles by having an asteroid named after him.

According to this book, Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are "comets and asteroids that approach the Sun to within [about 120 million miles] so...they can approach the Earth's orbit to within [about 30 billion miles]." Comets & asteroids and thus NEOs are "the leftover bits and pieces from the early solar system formation process."

This book conveys the following with respect to NEOs:

(1) scientific importance
(2) the origin and development of life
(3) future space resources
(4) the defence of our planet from a sizeable and thus damaging impact

In terms of life, we humans may owe our very existence (and our dominance of planet Earth--remember the dinosaurs) to NEOs that struck the Earth!!

We need to find NEOs early and track them to ensure that none of them has the Earth's name on it. While they are critically important for our future, if we don't find them before they find us, we may not have a future!! (One impact has the capacity to wipe out an entire civilization.)

The last three chapters of this book deal respectively, with NEO threats to Earth, predictions of NEO impacts, and the deflection of a NEO. Remember, "the question is not whether an asteroid has Earth's name on it but rather which one and when?"

(Oh, by the way, the above extract in quotation marks that begins this review actually occurred. It was later determined by tracking and calculations that this asteroid would not pose a threat to Earth.)

All the illustrations (diagrams and black & white photographs) in this book are very instructive and add another dimension to the main narrative. There are forty illustrations peppered throughout. As well, almost every page has footnotes that provide interesting additional information.

The photo on the cover of this book (shown above by Amazon) is an artist's portrayal of near-Earth asteroid "Apophis." On April 13, 2029, it will pass close enough to the Earth so as to be observable with the naked eye in Europe and North Africa. (Mark your calendar.)

Finally, Yeomans, as mentioned above, states that asteroids and comets can only be NEOs. Then what are objects such as meteors, fireballs, human-made or artificial satellites, and artificial space junk called?

In conclusion, this is a well-written book. Donald Yeomans tells us at the very end that:

"Near-Earth objects are among the smallest members of the solar system, but their diminutive size is in no way proportional to their importance. When it comes to their role in the development and future of humankind, next to the Sun itself, theirs is the most important realm."

(first published 2013; illustrations; preface; acknowledgements; 10 chapters; main narrative 155 pages; references; appendix; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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