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.”