Stop Asteroids? When All Else Fails, Do It Yourself

When NASA's asteroid map that shows the trajectories of all known NEOs looks like something that a cosmic kitty did with a large ball of thread, you know you have a problem. Image credit

When NASA’s asteroid map that shows the trajectories of all known NEOs looks like something that a cosmic kitty did with a large ball of thread, you know you have a problem. Image credit

While the movie Armegeddon may not be the greatest in terms of scientific accuracy, it did call attention to the asteroid threat.

How far would you be willing to go to save Earth from an asteroid threat? If this question calls up images of the movie Armegeddon, it should: Some people are willing to go pretty darned far to stop that killer asteroid. Although Armeggedon’s scientific accuracy might have been questionable, the real truth of stopping asteroids is that you don’t have to be part of a smash-hit Hollywood blockbuster to do it. You just need funding and the willingness to make that your full-time job.

The first step in stopping the next extinction-event-inducing asteroid is detecting that the threat exists. NASA will sometimes announce the discovery of an asteroid that is about to buzz Earth only days before it actually does. Sometimes it’s even waited to announce that discovery until the asteroid has already passed. I’m frankly surprised that conspiracy theorists haven’t jumped all over this one. It’s like NASA doesn’t want us to panic when it knows perfectly well that it can’t even stop a close call.

The B612 Foundation deserves credit for at least trying to find a solution to the problem of detecting near-Earth objects that intersect Earth’s orbit. It’s been working on a telescope that it plans to launch into a solar orbit in order to track asteroids. Even better would be a constellation of telescopes to add the capacity to watch multiple regions of the inner solar system at the same time. Like many private space ventures, though, the B612 Foundation has been wrestling with funding to the point where its founders – both astronauts – have had to auction off space memorabilia on eBay in order to keep it going. It will be doing well if it can launch the one telescope.

Astronomy Cast Talks Killer Asteroids

Including the Torino Scale

Once detected, near-Earth asteroids can be placed on the Torino Scale, which measure the threat that an asteroid poses to Earth. If a near-Earth object is highly unlikely to hit Earth in the near future or is small enough that it will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, skywatchers will give it a 0 on the Torino scale. Scientists say that they usually don’t start worrying unless an asteroid scores above a 3, and the largish near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis asteroid briefly rated a 4 until astronomers recalculated its orbit and downgraded it to a 1. Astronomers will issue an alert if an asteroid becomes a serious threat and reaches Level 5 or above. A Level 8 asteroid tends to strike Earth once every millennium or so, and a Level 10 asteroid strikes once every 100,000 years. (We’re overdue for the next big one.)

Detection may wind up being the easy part when it comes to actually stopping asteroids. The more difficult step will be building and launching the hardware needed to divert the asteroid’s course. Diversion is actually the favored way to dispose of the threatening asteroid rather than simply blowing it up. When you blow up an asteroid, it might be a satisfying way to deliver a dramatic “Up yours!” to that asteroid for threatening your planet, but you still have to deal with the fact that the fragments will hit Earth anyway. Really all you’ve accomplished is widening the region in which the asteroid, or its pieces, will strike.

NASA Asteroid Redirect Mission

This may have been the real purpose of the now-canceled Asteroid Redirect Mission. It would have been a way for NASA to craftily sneak in a test of one proposed method to divert an asteroid by passing it off as one element in the larger Journey to Mars. Simply capture it and then park it in a location where it won’t become a threat. Bonus points if you can have your astronauts conduct a survey of your captive asteroid. (Hey, that sucker might have valuable rare-Earth elements that can be mined when everybody has sort of forgotten about it and even the scientific community has gotten bored.)

Does anybody have an automated spacecraft to spare? Another proposed method for diverting an asteroid is to park a spacecraft beside an asteroid and then use the spacecraft’s gravity to “tug” the asteroid into an orbit where it’ll miss Earth. Yes, a spacecraft does have gravity even if it’s just the size of the relatively small Cassini Probe. The challenge will involve calculating when the spacecraft will need to rendezvous with the asteroid to do its work of “tugging” the asteroid and how big the spacecraft needs to be to have any effect at all. The good part is that even a near-miss is still a miss.

The Funding Problem

The downside of all this is that all of this takes money and most politicians don’t think it’s worth the expense if one goes by their attitude toward spending money on any outer space-oriented activity at all. They see space exploration as a luxury and efforts like diverting asteroid threats as being meaningless. They would have voters believe that you have a better chance of winning the lottery than an asteroid does of hitting Earth. (All the better to convince you to part with that dollar for a Little Lotto ticket.) And most voters buy it because the space program seems like a distant entity that has very little impact on their lives beyond some cool technological spinoffs that put bubbles in their beer.

Most of the government’s efforts are geared toward what will happen after a massive “dinosaur-killer” level asteroid strike. FEMA, for instance, has preparations in place to respond to the disaster caused by a large asteroid strike. However, as we are currently seeing with the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, disaster relief agencies like FEMA can easily be financially overwhelmed by disasters on a lesser scale than what a “dinosaur-killer” would cause. While NASA does have a Planetary Defense Office whose duties include studying the problem of preventing an asteroid strike, Congress does not seem to realize that it would pretty much be easier to avoid a disaster if it is at all possible to do so.

How easy is it to fob off the work (and the expense) onto private organizations? NASA has been making investments into the development of technologies that could be useful in future space exploration missions through public-private partnerships in which private companies get paid for meeting milestones. Then the private companies can turn around and sell products based on their new technology to interested public and private parties. The challenge will be finding enough customers with cash to make the new technologies profitable.

This becomes an issue when private organizations like the B612 Foundation have difficulties finding funding for many of the same reasons that normal voters aren’t interested in asteroids. When there’s no money, there’s no customer and no profit to be made. In economic terms, infinite will to purchase beer makes no difference when there is no money in the hat to buy beer with. When the public isn’t interested in anything but what the human Cheeto said on Twitter this time, it doesn’t donate money to organizations like the B612 Foundation. And the public won’t even think about the idea that it’s screwing itself over until that asteroid is visible in the sky.

Awareness? Pffft. People are aware that a lot of red meat and fried foods in their diet will boost their risk of a heart attack, but that doesn’t stop them from jumping for the large combo meal at their favorite fast food joint. People are aware of the basic theory that an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs, but they don’t connect that with the idea that a killer asteroid could be headed our way right now. Awareness will mean nothing when people aren’t thinking about how they can get something healthier for a low cost and not a lot of time during a half-hour lunch break and also don’t see what they can do about a possible killer asteroid if they are interested in doing anything at all.

Aren’t There More Important Issues To Focus On, Though?

It depends on whether you believe that the availability of minimum wage jobs is more important than the survival of the people who would be filling those jobs. While quality of life is important, we aren’t going to be worrying about much besides survival if a killer asteroid hits and causes a catastrophic meltdown in civilization. The real truth is that we’re overdue for an asteroid strike that will make the asteroid that exploded over Siberia in 1908, causing extensive damage to the surrounding forest and reportedly killing a reindeer-herder and hundreds of his reindeer, look like a warning shot.

The Russian Meteor of 2013

This one reportedly injured 1,000 people and damaged 3,000 buildings. And it’s still tame compared to an asteroid that will rate an 8 or 10 on the Torino Scale.

The important thing to realize when talking about things like unemployment is that there is a difference between “a job” and “a career”. That position as a burger flipper at McDonald’s is “a job” and the fact that jobs at McDonald’s are so often referred to in a disparaging manner should say something about what a lame-ass job it is. However, an employee with a moderate amount of ambition and an ability to keep his ego in check can make a career out of a job at McDonald’s by working his way up from burger flipper, to shift manager, to associate manager, to manager of the McDonald’s franchise. Maybe eventually, he will make district manager if he impresses corporate management enough and takes evening classes in business management at the local community college too.

But that won’t happen if suddenly the corporate office decides to shut down a significant number of McDonald’s locations in the state because they aren’t profitable. Then there are fewer opportunities for McDonald’s workers who are ambitious enough to treat the burger flipper job as the first rung in the corporate ladder.

That’s how NASA employees and contractors feel when Congress yanks funding for a project that they’ve spent several years and several billion dollars on already. It impacts their careers because now there are fewer opportunities, not only for advancement, but also for any employment at all. They may genuinely believe in what they’re doing, but it’s also a regular paycheck that they depend upon to feed their families and have a dignified lifestyle. When intellectuals such as scientists and engineers move between countries, it’s usually because their ability to make a living as scholars has become threatened by external forces or they’ve been warned by a colleague that they’ve been declared an enemy of the state and they might find new opportunities elsewhere (if they’re lucky). The question is whether the United States is willing to lose its intellectuals to another nation with more opportunities by pursuing “more important” issues to the exclusion of the important matter of defending Earth against alien threats like asteroids.

The Planetary Society’s Lightsail

Don’t get me wrong, a privately funded space mission could work if the money is present. The (partial) success of the Planetary Society’s test of a spacecraft with a solar sail proved that. The Planetary Society was able to crowdfund the mission by raising money from people who already supported its mission and that was the entire reason that they got any results from the solar sail at all. It went to the people who were already aware of the importance of space exploration instead of wasting its time begging for money from a general public that is indifferent at best.

The same can be true for organizations like the B612 Foundation that are interested in stopping asteroids. When these organizations want to raise funds, they should go to the people who believe that humanity doesn’t deserve to be wiped out by a killer asteroid purely because human civilization has some problems. That includes the people who want to save the best of humanity – the scholars and philosophers on down to the blue-collar worker who has the dignity to believe in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay – purely because they don’t deserve to be scapegoats for the irresponsible behavior of those who can’t think beyond their daily existence. When an organization wants to raise funds for a space mission, these are the potential donors they should be talking to.

Because this isn’t a science fiction movie. This is the real universe in which the solar system might be like an almost-finished billiards game with most of the balls already in their pockets, but there are still enough balls on the table that are capable of colliding with one another. One of those balls could fall into the pocket called Earth and cause damage in the process. It might even wipe out our modern human civilization, and then the human Cheeto just won’t matter because the survivors will be struggling to pick up the pieces as well as they can and wondering why they didn’t listen to the warnings from scientists who warned us that it’s unwise to ignore the asteroid problem. Most people will ignore them purely because they don’t want to admit that it has anything to do with them and, anyway, why should they care if an asteroid chooses to wipe out somebody they hate? That leaves it up to the rest of us to do what we can to take care of the threat. (And, hey, it’ll be nice to harvest some rare-Earths from an asteroid for a change.)

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