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Meet a NASA Scientist Who Protects Earth From Asteroid Collisions

It’s fair to say that Hollywood blockbusters have overhyped the potential of an Earth-ending asteroid collision, but there is some truth to those natural disaster stories.

The Solar System Dynamics group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab employs physicists like Marina Brozović to keep an eye on the many near-Earth objects that could potentially come in contact with the planet. Brozović spoke with WIRED about her work, and she called her division “flight control for the solar system.”

Brozović believes the team—formed at the request of Congress—has identified about 95 percent of near-Earth asteroids with a diameter greater than one kilometer. She tells WIRED that there are likely billions of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. These objects become so-called near-Earth asteroids when they’re nudged to the inner solar system by gravitational forces.

Asteroids have played a huge role in the development of Earth—from delivering organic material to causing mass extinctions around 66 million years ago. More recently, in February of 2013, an unexpected 17-meter asteroid exploded about 100,000 feet above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The force of the explosion injured about 1200 people, and cost an estimated 1 billion rubles in damage.

Still, Brozović says that if an asteroid was going to collide with Earth, we’d likely spot it years ahead of time and be able to prepare a deflection mission. (See, we told you there was a nugget of truth in the silver screen.)

If you’re hungry for some up-close near-Earth asteroid action, the time is nigh: Asteroid 2013 TX68 will be making its closest approach on March 5. And in the meantime, head over to WIRED to hear Brozović talk about Carl Sagan and the death of the dinosaurs.

Images via NASA.

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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