Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Asteroid Defense: A Proper Function of Government

 

In less than two hours, a 60ft-wide asteroid will whiz past the Earth. It’s not going to hit us or cause any other harm, but it will come to within about 25,000 miles of our planet’s surface, or about 1/10 the distance to the Moon.

We’re talking about a rock the size of a whale moving at 24,500 mph relative to the Earth. By comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia last year was a little smaller, though moving faster. This particular rock isn’t the sort of thing that could end civilization, but — if it were a little larger and had a slightly different path — it could easily have destroyed a city, sparked an enormous wildfire, caused a monstrous tsunami, or some combination of the three.

The scary thing is that this asteroid was only discovered last week; had it been on a collision course, there’s little we could have done beyond evacuating the area within its trajectory. The really scary thing is that it isn’t a fluke: as of a few years ago, it was estimated that there are probably more than 3,200 Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) over 100m across yet to be discovered, about 70 of which are more than 1 kilometer across.

If the purpose of government is to protect the rights of its citizens and to provide for the public defense, it’s hard to image a project more worthy of its attention than meteoroid defense. Rather than a priority, however, the subject is treated as an afterthought: the Pan-Staars system was funded by an earmark for Sen. Daniel Inouye and the NEOWISE mission simply used an existing probe that had already fulfilled its primary purpose. Total federal funding — all projects over all time — is less than $1 billion. There’s one federal project in the works and another on the drawing board, as well as a privately-funded one, but all three are years away from completion at best.

Searching for PHAs is a relatively inexpensive project with few negative externalities and the potential to save thousands of lives. Should we find something, it will have the added benefit of giving the US some always-appreciated international goodwill. Think of it this way: Russians invade neighboring countries in naked land grabs and shoot down airliners; Jihadis murder innocent people for having the wrong religion; Americans save the planet from flying rocks.

What can we do if we find an asteroid on an impact trajectory? It depends on how much warning we have, but Phil Plait can explain it better than I:

 

Image Credit: Flickr user tonynetone.

Correction: this post was, originally, erroneously titled “Meteoroid Defense: A Proper Function Of Government.”

There are 50 comments.

  1. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

    Are you familiar with Spaceweather.com? They have a listing of all of the PHAs, their flyby distances and sizes. It seems obvious to me that we need some sort of comprehensive strategy for dealing with these potential impactors, much more than we need to be worrying about things like “Climate Change.”

    • #1
    • September 5, 2014, at 9:39 AM PST
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  2. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Since it’s a problem that affects the entire planet and not just one country, does that mean it’s a proper function of the United Nations, and that the United Nations should have the power to tax individuals to pay for meteorite defense?

    • #2
    • September 5, 2014, at 9:56 AM PST
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  3. Knotwise the Poet Member

    I always read scifi writer Orson Scott Card’s columns. I remember him writing years ago on this subject and how important it is to figure out. He said something along the line that a devastating meteor could strike maybe tomorrow or maybe not for ten thousand years. We don’t know. But best to figure out how to detect and prevent it now for ourselves and future generations.

    • #3
    • September 5, 2014, at 10:21 AM PST
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  4. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Knotwise the Poet:

    … a devastating meteor could strike maybe tomorrow or maybe not for ten thousand years. We don’t know. But best to figure out how to detect and prevent it now for ourselves and future generations.

    So, just how much funding should “we” bestow upon the government officials to whom “we” delegate this responsibility, and how do “we” keep them accountable when they can always respond “but it’s SUCH an important project” any time someone questions their spending?

    How do “we” keep them from spending an inordinate amount of “our” money on tiger-repellant rocks? “Hey, we’ve kept the meteorites from hitting the Earth for this long. Why stop now? I also have a rock that keeps tigers away.”

    How many years go by without an Extinction-Level meteorite impact before “we” get to say, “you know, maybe we can start to reduce your funding”, when they can always say in response, “yeah, but you never know! You cut our funding, and THAT’S when the asteroid decides to hit the planet. Murphy’s Law, dontcha know.”

    Why is it assumed that government can repel asteroids better than private industry?

    • #4
    • September 5, 2014, at 10:25 AM PST
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  5. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Statistically-speaking, how often have extinction-level meteorites struck the Earth in the past?

    Statistically-speaking, what are the odds of the next one coming in my lifetime? Within two lifetimes? Within 100 lifetimes? Within 1000 lifetimes? Within 10,000 lifetimes? Within 100,000 lifetimes?

    Statistically, what are the odds that government action can prevent the next one?

    What are the odds that government spending now would have any dent on the problem, when technological advancement that will occur ANYWAY may just as easily come up with a solution (much like incidental technological advancement has much more impact on climate change mitigation than government spending does), or at least provide a better starting point for governmental action to begin at some point in the future?

    Could that money be put to other uses that would be of greater service to humanity, given the probabilities involved?

    • #5
    • September 5, 2014, at 10:33 AM PST
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  6. Fred Cole Member

    Statist.

    Damnit, Tom, you used to be cool.

    (Please note: The above was intended in a tone of jest.)

    • #6
    • September 5, 2014, at 10:47 AM PST
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  7. Fred Cole Member

    Not for nothing, but not every rock needs to be an ELE in order to make a big mess. Tunguska happened in the middle of the wilderness, but if it happened over Kansas City, it’d be a mess.

    However, if it happened over western Pennsylvania, nothing of value would be lost.

    (Please note: That last bit was meant as a joke.)

    • #7
    • September 5, 2014, at 10:53 AM PST
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  8. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Fred Cole: Not for nothing, but not every rock needs to be an ELE in order to make a big mess. Tunguska happened in the middle of the wilderness, but if it happened over Kansas City, it’d be a mess.

    Again, it’s a question of balancing the probabilities against the cost.

    It is estimated that only about 10% of the Earth’s entire surface is populated (either lightly or densely), and over 50% of the Earth’s land surface is (for all intents and purposes) inhospitable to human life.

    So, assume a Tunguska-level event.

    There’s a 71% chance it will land in the ocean, possibly causing a tsunami. How much money should taxpayers spend to prevent an event of that size, considering that the death toll of the “Boxing Day” tsunami was measured “only” in the 100,000s? (And, ackshully, a Tunguska-level event would almost certainly cause way LESS of a tsunami than that.)

    Now, there’s a 29% chance that it would hit land, but only about a 10-to-14% chance that the point of impact would be (significantly) inhabited. How much should taxpayers spend to prevent the event, given those probabilities?
    Population Density of the Earth

    • #8
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:05 AM PST
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  9. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    More questions:

    Why is it assumed that its scientists working for the federal government that would come up with the solution to the problem?

    Why is it assumed that its scientists working for the US government that would come up with the solution to the problem?

    Is it not possible that differences in organizational structure found in other levels of government, or in the governments of other nations, would make those organizations better suited to solving the problem?

    • #9
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:13 AM PST
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  10. Tim H. Member

    A comprehensive search for Earth-crossing asteroids is the kind of project that actually answers the “but how big is the risk, really?” question. This is a statistical question, and since we had not had large-scale searches (that I’m familiar with) until the last couple of decades, our knowledge was spotty, and the statistics were poor. We’re starting to get a better idea (see the chart below, from the LSST site here), but it’s still early.

    One point is that the smaller ones are harder to find, but they’re more common, while the really big ones are easier to find, but they’re rarer. So we can estimate how “complete” the search is down to a limit of some given asteroid size. As you can see from the legend, there are different estimates of how many of a given size might be out there, and the search this chart describes is probably still missing a lot of dangerous-sized ones.

    Speaking as someone who thinks the Federal government needs to stick strictly to its delegated powers, this strikes me (an impact joke!) as fitting the “common defense” role very nicely.

    Risk of impact from Near Earth Objects

    • #10
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:27 AM PST
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  11. Tim H. Member

    One other thing: As far as any worries that it’s creating another out-of-control, expensive government agency, the search-and-discovery phase of this project is one that would asymptotically approach completeness. There is a fixed population of asteroids out there, barring the creation of new ones through the rare collisions and fragmentation. Once we’ve found all of the ones larger than some minimum size (say, those that are big enough to survive a fall through the atmosphere and cause enough damage), within the inner solar system, then this part of the project would probably turn to monitoring, where you’re looking for changes in their orbits. Asteroids change orbits when they pass close to a planet, so you can’t predict their movements too far into the future (chaos theory), and you have to keep watching them.

    There’s still the engineering aspects of how to move one out of the way, if it’s on a collision course, but the search parts of this really couldn’t get all that expensive. It’s running some telescopes and putting in automated software for looking for moving objects. It’s pretty cheap.

    • #11
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:35 AM PST
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  12. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Tim H.: …see the chart below, from the LSST site here …

     
    From the site’s “about” page:

    The LSST is a Public-Private partnership, and the data will be made public immediately to the US, Chilean, and operational partner communities. The National Science Foundation is the lead Federal agency supporting the central project office, the telescope, site, data management and education and public outreach elements of the project, the Department of Energy provides the funding for the camera. Both agencies are currently supporting initial development with construction funding proposed but not approved at this time. A non-profit corporation, called the LSST Corporation, has been set up to establish the additional partnerships necessary for construction and operation as well as to work with the scientific community of over 400 scientists and engineers to maximize the scientific impact of the LSST.

    No mention of cost, I see.

    I presume the costs are within my own personal tolerances for government spending, but it would be nice if they were a bit more up-front regarding the dollar figures involved.

    I hear “them” already: “How can you be so petty as to bring up costs when the problem is SO important!?”

    • #12
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:39 AM PST
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  13. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Misthiocracy:Why is it assumed that its scientists working for the US government that would come up with the solution to the problem?

    You’re surely not suggesting that Canadians could do it, are you? Just teasing, M.

    • #13
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:44 AM PST
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  14. John Walker Contributor

    Given that the last two big impactors both hit Russia (Tunguska and Chelyabinsk), (hey—it’s the largest target!) shouldn’t the Russian taxpayers foot part of the bill?

    Around 90% of the near-Earth asteroids 1 km and larger have been found. Here is a talk by David Morrison of NASA Ames and the SETI Institute on the status and prospects for detecting sub-kilometre near-Earth objects.

    • #14
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:46 AM PST
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  15. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Randy Weivoda:

    Misthiocracy:Why is it assumed that its scientists working for the US government that would come up with the solution to the problem?

    You’re surely not suggesting that Canadians could do it, are you?

    Not as long as I have a say in how my tax dollars are spent. ;-)

    Now that you mention it, maybe I should keep my fool mouth shut and let Washington foot the bill …

    • #15
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:49 AM PST
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  16. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Please note that (up until #15, but that doesn’t really count) I never write that there should be no government involvement in this project.

    My comments are all questions about how much taxpayer funding should be devoted to the project, and how to maintain accountability over the funding, considering the probabilities involved.

    I am forever astounded by how often merely asking questions is interpreted as opposition (not accusing anybody here, it’s simply an observation in general).

    • #16
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:53 AM PST
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  17. John Walker Contributor

    Once you’ve catalogued all of the near-Earth asteroids above a size deemed to be dangerous, there is still one threat that remains. Comets falling into the inner solar system for the first time are only detected when they begin to brighten as heat from the Sun causes them to emit gas. A typical parabolic orbit comet may be detected around the point it passes the orbit of Jupiter. If it is found to be on a collision course with Earth, this gives very little time to mount a deflection mission and the mission would have to impart a large delta-v to cause the comet to miss the Earth. (For a near-Earth asteroid where you detect a collision decades out, only a tiny push is needed to make it miss.)

    The nightmare scenario is a comet which approaches from the direction of the Sun. It would not be detected at all before it hit, because it never appeared in a dark sky. A surveillance satellite placed in Earth’s orbit around the Sun but at a 90° angle to the position of the Earth would allow detecting such objects.

    • #17
    • September 5, 2014, at 11:55 AM PST
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  18. Tim H. Member

    I think we might be misinterpreting some of these projects. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), PanSTARRS, and some other projects that do or will include asteroid searches…are not entirely about asteroid searches. The first two I mentioned are not even primarily about asteroid searches, but if you’re monitoring the sky for things that change (gamma-ray bursts, comets, planets, supernovae, flaring active galaxies, etc.), you’ll also be able to pick up asteroids. So these are multipurpose projects. Secondly, most of these projects are also not “Federal projects.” They’re huge—in many cases absolutely enormous—collaborations, with lots of colleges and companies funding them (In know Google is on the LSST, for example), plus some amount of Federal funding. So it’s not a matter of creating a Federal agency to look for Near Earth Objects. They’re already being looked for, but I do think it’s legitimate for the Feds to contribute, and even to contribute more.

    The big thing the Feds ought to do with this, though, is figure out how to avoid collisions once they’re predicted!

    • #18
    • September 5, 2014, at 12:12 PM PST
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  19. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Tim H.: #18 (no need to quote the whole dang thing, really)

    …therefore, the question is really about,

              1. how much federal funding of scientific research are voters willing to pay, and
              2. how much federal funding of scientific research can the USA afford, which means that …

              .

              … discussions about specific scientific projects are at best largely moot, and at worst a rhetorical distraction to get more support for federal scientific spending in general.

              After all, if the LSST project (to take one example) is already a large, multi-party project with funding from many different sources, then why is it necessary for the federal government of the USA to be involved. (Note: This specific question is about “necessity”, not “advisability”.)

              • #19
              • September 5, 2014, at 12:22 PM PST
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            1. Johnny Dubya Inactive

              Think of it this way: Russians invade neighboring countries in naked land grabs and shoot down airliners; Jihadis murder innocent people for having the wrong religion; Americans save the planet from flying rocks.

              The U.S. protects South Korea against North Korean aggression. It develops AIDS drugs that treat HIV-positive people in Africa. It provides the world countless technological innovations. It sends abroad billions of dollars in foreign aid.

              And yet, America-haters probably number in the billions. There are huge numbers of people who admire Vladimir Putin more than they do George Bush or Barack Obama; who view the U.S. as “The Great Satan”; who would love to see the U.S. destroyed, notwithstanding the devastating effect killing the American “golden goose” would have on the world. This is because many humans in the world could be described with at least one of these adjectives: Ignorant, uneducated, nationalistic, backward, barbaric, freedom-hating.

              I don’t see “sav[ing] the planet from flying rocks” as having the potential to change any of those attitudes. I don’t mean to say that we should let the planet be destroyed (though I am tempted to say that, sometimes).

              • #20
              • September 5, 2014, at 12:29 PM PST
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            2. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

              Think of it this way: Russians invade neighboring countries in naked land grabs and shoot down airliners; Jihadis murder innocent people for having the wrong religion; Americans save the planet from flying rocks.

              If Russia and the Jihadis are negligent for spending an insufficient amount on Meteorite Detection & Deflection (MD&D), then wouldn’t that mean that Singapore is guilty of the same negligence for devoting it’s resources to free trade?

              If MD&D is such a big priority that it must be the purview of government, then surely it doesn’t matter where countries decide to redirect their resources instead. According to the logic, as far as I can see, if a country isn’t devoting the requisite percentage of its GDP to MD&D then it is just as negligent as Russia or the Jihadis.

              Forgiving any country responsibility for contributing to MD&D would, it seems to me, be a tacit admission that it isn’t really as big a problem as one might suggest, probabilistically-speaking.

              The US only gets the job because the US happens to be very rich and is already involved with this sort of thing, thanks to NASA and such.

              • #21
              • September 5, 2014, at 12:44 PM PST
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            3. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

              Can’t we just have Bruce Willis take care of it based upon his past experience?

              • #22
              • September 5, 2014, at 1:26 PM PST
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            4. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

              Mark:

              Can’t we just have Bruce Willis take care of it based upon his past experience?

               Better we all perish than lose Bruce…

              • #23
              • September 5, 2014, at 1:28 PM PST
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            5. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor

              Misthiocracy:

              The US only gets the job because the US happens to be very rich and is already involved with this sort of thing, thanks to NASA and such.

               I guess it beats trying to build up the self esteem of jihadist countries with NASA through recognizing their important contributions to dome-lopping (and the concept of “0”)?

              • #24
              • September 5, 2014, at 1:29 PM PST
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            6. Tuck Inactive

              As a Libertarian I think that if we just stop shooting stuff into space, maybe space will stop shooting stuff at us. It’s the non-aggression principle at its simplest. We need to withdraw within the Earth’s traditional borders, and stop making all the rocks angry at us.

              Of course if those rocks do want to immigrate, we should allow them to, as rocks should be free to live wherever they desire.

              • #25
              • September 5, 2014, at 1:34 PM PST
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            7. Tuck Inactive

              OK, now that I got that off my shoulders: this is a classic Tragedy of the Commons situation. (Kind of an inverse-tragedy-of-the-commons, since it not about exploitation but about keeping things out. But it’s the same dynamic.)

              People do pretty poorly with these things, in general. It’s sort of like preventing tyranny: the benefits to the individual are likely small, but the costs are high. Better to let the neighbors worry about it.

              But I don’t think that means we can’t handle it, although we probably (in the human fashion) won’t get serious until a fair number of us get killed. So hopefully the first one won’t be too big.

              • #26
              • September 5, 2014, at 1:39 PM PST
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            8. Mark Wilson Member

              My alma mater created an Asteroid Deflection Research Center a few years back. Some of the research topics are pretty wild:

              • Possibilities for a Bose-Einstein Condensed Positronium Annihilation Gamma Ray Laser
              • Asteroid Deflection via Standoff Nuclear Explosions
              • Hypervelocity Penetration of NEOs [Near-Earth Objects]
              • Solar Reflector Gravity Tractor for Asteroid Deflection
              • #27
              • September 5, 2014, at 2:00 PM PST
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            9. Tim H. Member

              Misthiocracy—the more I think of it (considering the existing search projects), the more I think the best place for the U.S. Federal government to play a role is in the practical side of asteroid defense.

              There will probably be a large cost and no profit that could be made (the best you get out of it is maintaining the status quo), and I think there’s very little chance of private or academic sources funding anything like this. This is the part that best falls under national defense (and if others object to having the U.S. pay for the world’s defense, maybe we could deflect only those asteroids headed for the United States. ;)

              But even then, considering that the search for the small-but-numerous end of the asteroid distribution function (the little ones are a lot more common) is tougher than the big-but-rare ones we’ve already done, it may be good and useful for Federal funding there. If you say, “Why more money?” then just reallocate the money from the existing NASA budget. We’re already funding a good bit of astronomy research…so just aim it in a practical direction.

              • #28
              • September 5, 2014, at 2:29 PM PST
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            10. John Walker Contributor

              Tim H.: But even then, considering that the search for the small-but-numerous end of the asteroid distribution function (the little ones are a lot more common) is tougher than the big-but-rare ones we’ve already done, it may be good and useful for Federal funding there. If you say, “Why more money?” then just reallocate the money from the existing NASA budget. We’re already funding a good bit of astronomy research…so just aim it in a practical direction.

              Further, learning about near-Earth objects is interesting from a scientific standpoint quite apart from the question of planetary defence. These objects may provide samples of the primordial solar system and help understand how the planets accreted from the original disc around the Sun. Further, they are the solar system objects accessible from Earth with the smallest delta-v, and consequently may be the first and easiest off-planet resources for a fledgeling space-faring civilisation to exploit.

              Discovering, characterising, and eventually returning samples from these objects can be justified by the scientific return, with planetary protection something you get for no additional cost.

              • #29
              • September 5, 2014, at 2:40 PM PST
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            11. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

              Tuck: But I don’t think that means we can’t handle it …

              As is usually my “thing”, the question is how to define “we”.

              • #30
              • September 5, 2014, at 2:48 PM PST
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