Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Government Invests Modest Funds to Protect Vital Public Good!

 

shutterstock_297359225For all the beauties to be found in Nature — and there are many — there are horrors aplenty. To take one of the more obvious examples, our own planet is subject to marvelously beneficent conditions that have allowed life to form and flourish, eventually giving rise to a sentient species whose members are able to contemplate their own existence, create civilization, and adjust their behavior not only by instinct, but also (within limitations) by intent. Every so often, however, a mountain-sized space rock slams into us at incredible speed. Depending on the mass, speed, and trajectory of said rock, the damage may be local, regional or — in rare cases — civilizational.

For the overwhelming majority of its history, humanity has had no way to predict such an event, let alone prevent one from happening. In just the past few decades, however, both of those abilities have come within the grasp of our most advanced cultures and — remarkably — at fairly modest cost. And while most of the worst likely troublemakers have been identified, a few big ones are likely still out there undetected, as well as a great many moderate ones.

Given all this, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of a public good than asteroid defense, nor a more appropriate use for at least some government action, even by the most restrictive definitions. We’ve discussed this before, but the (good) news is that NASA seems to be getting more serious about the matter:

The [Near Earth Object] Observations Program operated on a budget of $4 million as recently as fiscal year 2010. That same year, the President announced a new goal for NASA — a human mission to an asteroid… [But the] recently passed federal budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $50 million for NEO observations and planetary defense, representing a more than ten-fold increase since the beginning of the current administration.

More recently yet:

NASA has announced the creation of a Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Lindley Johnson, NASA’s current near-Earth object (NEO) program executive will lead the newly established office. The PDCO will reside within NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

Should a large object be detected on a collision course, there are a number of ways we might divert its path. All of them, however, require that we detect and intercept it as soon as possible, as even a small nudge can save the day when the object is far away, while evacuation and prayer may be the only available options if it’s sufficiently close. And recall that we’re still getting taken completely unawares by objects big enough to do real (albeit limited damage).

This new budget won’t give us all the capabilities we might need — though to be fair, all the capabilities we might need may not be cost-effective or justifiable — but it will give us a better sense of the possible threats and (maybe) held us prepare for and mitigate some of the damage. That’s good.

There are 25 comments.

  1. Brian McMenomy Inactive

    Those defenses might have some secondary utility in the realm of space-based missile defense as well. This, along with upgrading & hardening our electrical grid against EMP, should be governmental priorities.

    • #1
    • February 5, 2016, at 10:02 AM PST
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  2. drlorentz Member

    Haven’t you heard? Catastrophic climate change is the most urgent national security threat. I know it’s true because my president told me. Sure, it will require many trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs to make some meaningless gestures that will only have negligible effect on global climate but it’s totally worth it because it shows our hearts are in the right place.

    Stop distracting the people with potentially cost-effective solutions to real threats.

    • #2
    • February 5, 2016, at 10:15 AM PST
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  3. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    This has been worrying me more and more lately. Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood are getting a bit old to be able to save us. Leaving who? Matt Damon? No, we always have to rescue him.

    Even SG-1 has been broken up, so we can’t count on Jack O’Neill and his gang to cleverly extend the reach of the hyperspace generators on their Goa’uld cargo ship and jump the offending asteroid right through the Earth.

    • #3
    • February 5, 2016, at 10:20 AM PST
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  4. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    On a serious note, I question our ability to deflect or adequately fragment a large object. I have no special expertise on the issue. But if it’s big, strapping on a rocket engine or two seems unlikely to have much of an effect. If it’s solid, even a nuke seems unlikely to have much effect.

    Obviously, I would need to defer to experts on the issue. But from looking at the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it does not appear that nukes dig much of a crater. I realize that these were exploded at altitude.

    • #4
    • February 5, 2016, at 10:31 AM PST
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  5. Lazy_Millennial Member

    Arizona Patriot:On a serious note, I question our ability to deflect or adequately fragment a large object.

    It’s not how big the object is, it’s how big space is. From far enough away, a tiny nudge is all you need to divert it from hitting us. Notice the space between us and the moon relative to both our sizes

    • #5
    • February 5, 2016, at 10:48 AM PST
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  6. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Lazy_Millennial:

    Arizona Patriot:On a serious note, I question our ability to deflect or adequately fragment a large object.

    It’s not how big the object is, it’s how big space is. From far enough away, a tiny nudge is all you need to divert it from hitting us. Notice the space between us and the moon relative to both our sizes

    Well, both size and distance matter, right?

    I understand that greater distance means that a smaller “nudge” would do the job, but it’s harder to give such a “nudge” at greater distance, and it’s harder to detect a problem at greater distance.

    Plus, I don’t know whether we’re remotely capable of giving a sizeable object any significant “nudge.” I mean, are we talking about firing a BB in the hope of diverting a freight train? Or can we pack a bigger punch? I just don’t know.

    • #6
    • February 5, 2016, at 11:01 AM PST
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  7. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Arizona Patriot:On a serious note, I question our ability to deflect or adequately fragment a large object. I have no special expertise on the issue. But if it’s big, strapping on a rocket engine or two seems unlikely to have much of an effect. If it’s solid, even a nuke seems unlikely to have much effect.

    If it’s far enough out and moving relatively slowly, a small effect may be all that’s needed (for similar reasons as to why a few degrees change early in a ship’s voyage can result in very different locations).

    Depending on the composition of the NEO, a nuclear bomb could use the object itself as a fuel source and create a geyser/rocket to one side. Alternately, you could land a massdriver on the object to throw material off of it, or build a base on the moon to throw stuff at it.

    • #7
    • February 5, 2016, at 11:10 AM PST
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  8. Dan Hanson Thatcher

    It’s surprisingly easy to do given a class of objects that’s relatively small yet large enough to do serious damage to the Earth. Say, one the size of a small mountain.

    For example, you can use a gravitational tractor method, wherein you just have to put a spacecraft near the object, then thrust just enough to not quite pull you free of its gravity. This makes gravity itself a ‘tow line’, and you can slowly move the object.

    According to this Arxiv paper, a 20-ton spacecraft with nuclear engines could impart enough direction change to an asteroid approximately 200 meters in diameter to cause it to miss the Earth so long as the lead time is at least 20 years. Smaller asteroids could be moved from closer distances, or larger or multiple ships could be used to move larger asteroids or closer ones.

    We have the technology to do that today. We’ve intercepted comets and asteroids. We’ve been testing nuclear engines for decades, but progress in them stopped because the left protested it to death. You know: The ‘party of science’. The same people that tried to stop the Cassini mission because they were freaked out by the nuclear RTG that powered it.

    There’s obviously a limit. If we discovered a body 100 miles across coming at us, there’s probably little we could do. The good news is that we’ve mapped all the bodies of that size in the solar system, and if one fell towards us from the Kuiper belt or Oort cloud we might be able to detect it many decades away, which would give us time to try other methods of deflecting it or breaking it apart.

    I don’t believe we can build a government program to effectively do this, as the chief requirement for asteroid deflection capability is a robust commercial space program, competition, and expansion of our overall space capabilities rather than a single moonshot-style program to build some sort of asteroid deflector.

    If that killer asteroid is ever found, our best chance for stopping it will lie in a space infrastructure that can support many different ways of getting to it and deflecting it, and which has many different kinds of rockets available because of competition. A robust asteroid-mining economy would have the tools to deal with smaller space bodies, and equipment for finding them. Anything we build that’s specific to the job is likely to be sub-optimal for any specific asteroid we find.

    Strangely, Obama has been excellent in this regard. He recently signed a bill giving property rights to asteroids to people who discover and exploit them, and he’s been better than the Republicans at promoting commercial space. That might be because he wants NASA to focus on global warming or something, but it’s still the right direction. Too many Republicans from the south have constituents in the government space industry.

    • #8
    • February 5, 2016, at 11:27 AM PST
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  9. Larry Koler Inactive

    Wow, thanks, Dan. Great stuff.

    And thanks for the heads up on the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Tom. Not a bad use of federal money if it doesn’t become a boondoggle for other climate scare stuff.

    I just want to weigh in with three things here:

    1. Thinking about the development of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center after the 1945 Hawaii Tsunami, this seems to be along the lines of what a good government can do and do well. This asteroid/comet business is a less common threat but it’s potential for extinction level events is greater.
    2. Read Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It’s quite engrossing and I wish they would make a movie from it.
    3. I just want to mention that “Deep Impact” is a much better movie than “Armageddon.” Much better and more interesting and better acted and more scientifically accurate.
    • #9
    • February 5, 2016, at 12:46 PM PST
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  10. Mark Wilson Member

    Arizona Patriot:I understand that greater distance means that a smaller “nudge” would do the job, but it’s harder to give such a “nudge” at greater distance, and it’s harder to detect a problem at greater distance.

    Orbital mechanics tells us that once you’ve achieved escape velocity, there’s no theoretical limit to how far you will travel. So to intercept* an object near or far you can use the same rocket, just entering a different escape orbit and waiting a different amount of time.

    The main difference would be how much energy you need to spend to then rendezvous* with the object, which would be primarily dependent on its approach direction and velocity, and secondarily on where you decide to rendezvous with it, near or far. And the relationship here is not straightforward (i.e. it’s not necessarily the case that rendezvous farther away requires more energy than rendezvous nearby).

    *The difference between intercept and rendezvous is the difference between blindly entering the freeway at any speed and direction you choose, and matching speed with traffic to smoothly merge.

    • #10
    • February 5, 2016, at 1:28 PM PST
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  11. Larry Koler Inactive

    Mark Wilson: The difference between intercept and rendezvous is the difference between blindly entering the freeway at any speed and direction you choose, and matching speed with traffic to smoothly merge.

    Mark, it seems easier to just intercept it and hit it at the right angle or some such thing. Are you saying that hitting it is too hard and we shouldn’t expect that we could even do this? — or that the results of the hit are too indeterminable?

    • #11
    • February 5, 2016, at 1:49 PM PST
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  12. Pilli Inactive

    What an absolutely, awsomely, bogus program!

    Anytime our government wants to spend some money on a “jobs” program, it finds a way to instill fear. OMG! Global Warming! Fear! Spend trillions. OMG! 9/11/2001 terrorists! Spend trillions AND take away freedoms.

    Now they have budgeted $50 Million on a gazillion to one ultra-long shot to stop an asteroid? That they have to find 30 years ahead of when it might hit to be able to do anything? $50 Million. And it will only get more expensive and never get shut down. Ever. The waste will go on forever.

    Think of the dozens if not hundreds of programs just like this one that spend $50 million because somebody says, “Well yea, this looks like a good thing. What harm could it do? And it may help.”

    Our government is too big now. And it’s programs like this that make it so.

    By the way, I am absolutely not worried about getting hit by an asteroid. I am worried about getting hit with more and more taxes that achieve less and less.

    • #12
    • February 5, 2016, at 2:01 PM PST
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  13. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Mark Wilson:

    Arizona Patriot:I understand that greater distance means that a smaller “nudge” would do the job, but it’s harder to give such a “nudge” at greater distance, and it’s harder to detect a problem at greater distance.

    Orbital mechanics tells us that once you’ve achieved escape velocity, there’s no theoretical limit to how far you will travel. So to intercept* an object near or far you can use the same rocket, just entering a different escape orbit and waiting a different amount of time.

    The main difference would be how much energy you need to spend to then rendezvous* with the object, which would be primarily dependent on its approach direction and velocity, and secondarily on where you decide to rendezvous with it, near or far. And the relationship here is not straightforward (i.e. it’s not necessarily the case that rendezvous farther away requires more energy than rendezvous nearby).

    It also takes more energy to reach the target quickly, right? We don’t want the planet-saving nuke, or whatever, on the interplanetary equivalent of a slow boat to China.

    • #13
    • February 5, 2016, at 2:51 PM PST
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  14. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Here’s a funny coincidence. In my wisecrack above, I mention a Stargate SG-1 episode about an asteroid impact, in which our heroes save the planet, again*, by using a Goa’uld cargo ship. The Goa’uld are the over-the-top cliche alien bad guys.

    The Wikipedia article in Tom’s original post mentions a NASA study of a possible impact by an asteroid. The name of the asteroid is Apophis.

    Apophis is the Goa’uld arch-enemy in Stargate SG-1.

    * SG-1 saves the planet so many times that they make fun of themselves, with O’Neill (two Ls) saying at one point “this should not get old, general.”

    • #14
    • February 5, 2016, at 2:57 PM PST
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  15. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Pilli:Anytime our government wants to spend some money on a “jobs” program, it finds a way to instill fear. OMG! Global Warming! Fear! Spend trillions. OMG! 9/11/2001 terrorists! Spend trillions AND take away freedoms.

    In general, I agree whole-hearted that we spend too much and worry too much. I disagree entirely that this is a good example of that.

    Now they have budgeted $50 Million on a gazillion to one ultra-long shot to stop an asteroid? That they have to find 30 years ahead of when it might hit to be able to do anything? $50 Million. And it will only get more expensive and never get shut down. Ever. The waste will go on forever.

    The 2016 budget is just shy of four trillion dollars ($4,000,000,000,000). Fifty million dollars is 0.00125% of that total.

    To scale that down, it’s the equivalent of a $0.63 purchase for someone who currently spends $50,000 annually (while making only $44,000 if you scale down federal revenue). If such a person was blowing cash on booze and entertainment and came to me for financial advice, I wouldn’t call attention to the medical test he got that cost literal pocket change.

    Pilli:Think of the dozens if not hundreds of programs just like this one that spend $50 million because somebody says, “Well yea, this looks like a good thing. What harm could it do? And it may help.”

    The $50m is insufficient to fix the problem should we find a NEO on a collision course, but it would make fixing it much easier and more likely. This is an inexpensive life-insurance policy against a real threat. It’s money well spent.

    • #15
    • February 5, 2016, at 3:14 PM PST
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  16. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Here’s a cost-benefit analysis.

    Let’s assume an annual chance of catastrophic impact of 1 in 60 million. Such an impact about 66 million years ago supposedly caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. So this sounds like a reasonable estimate.

    Now, there are 7.4 billion people on earth. So, the expected annual number of lives saved by avoiding a catastrophic impact is 123 (7.4 billion divided by 60 million).

    The cost is $50 million per year. So the cost per expected life saved is about $405,000.

    I’d like to hear from those more knowledgeable, but I suspect that this is well within the cost/benefit range supporting many other safety expenditures, such as highway guardrails.

    Note that this analysis puts no value on non-human species and does not account for preserving global wealth of about $250 trillion. Including global wealth in the equation decreases the expected annual cost per human life saved to about $375,000. I don’t know how to value those adorable polar bears.

    Of course, as with so many things, this hypothetical has the US shouldering the burden of protecting the 7.1 billion non-Americans on the planet. But that is just an argument for enlisting some international help.

    Would you at least agree that this is more useful than Harry Reid’s cowboy poetry festivals?

    • #16
    • February 5, 2016, at 3:42 PM PST
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  17. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    Now, let’s start taking EMP from the Sun seriously too

    • #17
    • February 5, 2016, at 4:34 PM PST
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  18. Mark Wilson Member

    Larry Koler:

    Mark, it seems easier to just intercept it and hit it at the right angle or some such thing. Are you saying that hitting it is too hard and we shouldn’t expect that we could even do this? — or that the results of the hit are too indeterminable?

    Depends on your chosen deflection method. If you’re trying for a direct impact, or detonating a nuclear bomb, then intercept is what you want. But if you are planning to mount a rocket engine on the asteroid or use a gravity tractor to tug it, you’ll need to rendezvous.

    • #18
    • February 5, 2016, at 4:42 PM PST
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  19. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Mark Wilson:

    *The difference between intercept and rendezvous is the difference between blindly entering the freeway at any speed and direction you choose, and matching speed with traffic to smoothly merge.

    As someone who recently started playing Kerbal Space Program, I should have caught that. :(

    • #19
    • February 5, 2016, at 4:52 PM PST
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  20. Mark Wilson Member

    Arizona Patriot:

    It also takes more energy to reach the target quickly, right? We don’t want the planet-saving nuke, or whatever, on the interplanetary equivalent of a slow boat to China.

    Yes, if time is at a premium then you have to fly faster. But it’s very expensive to fly faster because the amount of propellant required (i.e. size of rocket) is an exponential function of speed in the rocket equation.

    Exponential propellant

    (Graphic from Hop’s Blog)

    • #20
    • February 5, 2016, at 5:04 PM PST
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  21. Patrick Chiles Inactive

    Someone should write a book about this. *cough cough*
    Seriously though, this is a topic I had to really dig into for my last book. We do need to focus on an effective early-warning system such as the B612 Foundation’s Sentinel satellite. Our options for dealing with any potential threats are much less dramatic as the time scale increases.

    • #21
    • February 5, 2016, at 5:29 PM PST
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  22. Mark Wilson Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Mark Wilson:

    *The difference between intercept and rendezvous is the difference between blindly entering the freeway at any speed and direction you choose, and matching speed with traffic to smoothly merge.

    As someone who recently started playing Kerbal Space Program, I should have caught that. :(

    I certainly didn’t mean that as a criticism of your post. In general speech I would use “intercept” just as you did, to mean any method to stop the asteroid. The distinction between it and rendezvous is kind of down in the weeds, and I only included it to make a technical point about delta-V budget.

    In fact in the context of military aviation I believe the word intercept literally means rendezvous in non-shoot down situations.

    • #22
    • February 5, 2016, at 5:46 PM PST
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  23. Dan Hanson Thatcher

    Intercept vs rendesvous is actually a critical problem due to the rocket equation. For example, we had the technology to fly by Pluto, but there was no way we could have achieved orbit. To do so would have required carrying enough fuel to make a big delta-v change at Pluto, and that means the entire rocket system would have had to be scaled up dramatically.

    You run into a real catch-22 problem here. If you need to match orbits with an object while it is still 20 years away from Earth, you either have to detect it much, much earler than that, or you have to be going really fast. But every bit of speed you add at the beginning is speed that has to be taken away at the other end. As Mark pointed out, the fuel requirements go up exponentially, so it soon becomes a pretty big problem. That’s one reason why you need nuclear eocket engines or something similar. Another is that the gravitational tractor method requires a long period of constant, relatively low acceleration, and chemical rockets won’t work.

    The detection problem is very real, as well. The category of objects that are small enoug for us to feasibly deflect will be very hard to spot while they are still 20-30 years away.

    • #23
    • February 6, 2016, at 10:46 AM PST
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  24. Larry Koler Inactive

    I typed up a comment yesterday but it didn’t get in somehow. My mistake probably.

    I wanted one of you to weigh in on the issue of hitting it at speed vs rendezvous. Surely there have been trade studies on this. I mean if we are up against a time constraint then we just have to hit it with something. Busting it up should help in some way it seems. Isn’t this much easier? Or is at the relative speeds is it almost impossible to hit it — is that risk not worth the effort?

    • #24
    • February 6, 2016, at 5:59 PM PST
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  25. Dan Hanson Thatcher

    It’s easy enough to hit just about any target in space that we can reach. The problem is that just colliding with it won’t impart enough energy to destroy a target if it’s a really large object. And if you break it into pieces, you’ve just traded one big collision on the Earth with a shotgun blast of smaller hits, which might even be worse.

    The only scenario I can see where trying to break it up might be useful is if we could take one object big enough to punch through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a lot of smaller objects that would burn up in the atmosphere. Or, if it’s an object that’s made up of two or more smaller objects lightly fused together by gravity you might be able to knock them apart and then deal with each one individually.

    If the object is a comet full of volatiles, maybe we could land a nuclear reactor on it that would use the local materials for fuel, heating them up and exhausting them through a nozzle and turning the whole thing into a rocket.. But that’s technology we don’t have now and may not have for a very long time.

    • #25
    • February 6, 2016, at 8:39 PM PST
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