Almost every American knows what John Deere or Massey-Ferguson means, a big green or red tractor that plows up the field. These brand names conjure up images of overalls and boots and twigs of hay being chewed on while whittling on old sticks on a rickety front porch. Rarely would one hear the word tractor and envision a hero who saves the entire civilization of Earth. An event that occurred in 2005 could very well change such stereotypes associated with the word “tractor”.
I was about three-years-old when I got my first ride on a tractor. I was fifteen-years-old when I got to plow my first field all by myself on a big Massey-Ferguson tractor we called the “Wildebeest”. At the time I was actually wearing a dress. I wasn’t supposed to be plowing the field. I was visiting with my grandparents for the summer and had returned home from church and not changed out of my church clothes because I expected we would return for the evening service.
My nanny received a phone call and sent me out to the field with a message folded up on a scrap of paper for Papaw. He read it, hopped off the tractor, left it running, and told me to get up there and finish the job because he had something to do. I looked at him like he had just told me to amputate my leg but I didn’t dare question him. A good girl did as she was told. I’m sure he read every word I was thinking by the expression on my face. He said, “Just follow the lines like your tracing a picture.” That was it. That was all the advice he had. He walked back to the house and never looked back.
I climbed up on the Wildebeest and prayed to God the first thing I touched would simply shut the bastard of a machine down. It didn’t. I tentatively pulled a lever like I had seen Papaw do, put my little foot clad in black patent leather Mary Jane’s on what I assumed was a gas pedal, and rolled away. My rows were a bit wavy when I finished an hour later but I didn’t kill myself or run over the neighbor’s fence.
When I got back to the house, I discovered the phone call had nothing to do with my Papaw at all. It was a friend of Nanny’s from church telling her she left her Sunday School study guide behind. Nanny used it as a ruse to send a note to Papaw that said “Let her drive the tractor.” And that was that, the gringa’s tractor adventures while Nanny and Papaw covertly watched from the window pleased with themselves and thrilled that their little granddaughter was so crazily, courageously entertaining. You know, back in the day when folks didn’t worry about getting Child Protective Services called out if they encouraged their kids to something exhilarating, liberating and life threatening all in the name of a “life skills teaching moment”.
This world saving tractor, however, has nothing to do with planting corn and beets. It doesn’t even have those enormous tires. It’s unlike any tractor humans have ever seen before. It looks more like a fancy Tinker Toy than anything else. Rather than churn up clods of dirt, it will push or pull one gigantic rock through outer space. This technology was first tested by NASA in 2005 as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that will ultimately get a human crew to Mars.
Since all mass exerts, as well as is affected by, gravity, it doesn’t take much to influence the orbit of an asteroid that is violating Earth’s personal space. A gravitational tractor doesn’t even have to touch the asteroid to redirect it. It simply has to get close enough to perform a maneuver that would change the orbital path of the asteroid. It’s like having an invisible lasso. That’s why the gringa thinks they should name this tractor in honor of Wonder Woman. Her Lasso of Truth may not have been invisible but her airplane was, so, the gringa thinks there’s enough connection there to rightfully name the tractor Wonder Woman. Also, since the theory works on mutual attraction (gravity), there should be some allusion to the tractor’s attractive sexiness and Wonder Woman was definitely all that.
NASA’s gravity tractor is being developed at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Scientists envision a twenty ton spacecraft propelled by nuclear powered electricity. As gravity causes the asteroid to be attracted to the tractor, thrusters would then propel the tractor to a suitable orbit area for the asteroid. Despite the gringa’s best efforts to dig around for news of a release mechanism, I simply couldn’t find anything on what would happen once a new orbit for the asteroid was established. So, Wonder Woman may be stuck in a lifetime commitment unless they come up with a way to untangle the ties that bind this cosmic relationship.
The gringa asks, how necessary is this project? How much danger are Earthlings in from a huge rock slamming into our home world and ending life as we know it? Well, out of the 12,000 Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that NASA has on record so far, almost all of them are larger than half a mile in diameter. By tracking their projected orbits, we humans should be safe for at least one hundred years. There are some smaller space rocks that could impact Earth, but are not necessarily big enough to cataclysmically impact humanity. The work we do today is really for the benefit of our great-great-grandchildren.
If anything related to the Universe fascinates you, it may be quite a lark to participate in NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. There are many activities and even prize competitions. The space agency has even developed a software application that can assist amateur astronomers discover and identify new asteroids. To become a part of this grand space adventure visit NASA at http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative
Source and Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov