The Asteroid Peril Isn’t Science Fiction

The Asteroid Peril Isn’t Science Fiction
     The title above comes from Gordon L. Dillow’s article in the July 6/7 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It is a subject/issue I have written about many times on this blog. Mr. Dillow is the author most recently of, “Fire In The Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, And The Race To Defend Earth,” published by Scribner.
     Mr Dillow’s bottom line up front: “Even if we managed to spot a dangerous asteroid heading for Earth, we have no means to stop it.” Mr. Dillow recounts the NASA-hosted exercise that was held this past May, where a team of international scientists, engineers, first responders and others gathered to discuss potential options for diverting a potential catastrophic asteroid hurtling toward Earth. See my blog for several articles detailing the conference findings. As part of the exercise, Mr. Dillow notes, “astronomers at a mountaintop observatory in Hawaii had spotted an 800-foot-wide asteroid, dubbed 2019 PDC, when it was 35 million miles away. By asteroid standards,” he notes, “it was relatively small, not even close to the six-mile-wide piece of space rock believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Still, this asteroid was traveling 31,000 miles per hour; and, it it hit Earth, the impact could release the equivalent of 500 megatons of TNT — about 10 times more powerful than the largest nuclear weapon ever built.”
     “Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated that the big rock was headed for Denver,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “Unless the asteroid could be deflected, two million people would have to be relocated, and the city would be obliterated.”
     “All of this was hair-raising, but fortunately not real,” he wrote. “The scientists were participating in a highly dramatized, but scientifically plausible “hypothetical asteroid impact scenario,” at the International Academy of Astronautics’ sixth Planetary Defense Conference, held in College Park, Maryland.
     “The sky wasn’t falling this time; but, the underlying questions are still urgent,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “Many scientists argue that the most effective way to deal with a threat from a small asteroid would be to send up an unmanned spacecraft armed with a nuclear explosive device to blow it up, or nudge it off course. Nuking an incoming asteroid is also the preferred Hollywood method — it worked spectacularly well for Bruce Willis in the exciting; but, scientifically challenged 1998 film, “Armageddon” — but, the nuclear option faces serious hurdles in the real world,” as the NASA-led exercise showed. “Sending nuclear weapons into space, even to save Denver, makes a lot of people nervous, and could violate international treaties governing the militarization of space,” Mr. Dillow wrote.
     “So, after some heated debate, the scientists assembled in Maryland decided to deploy the first unmanned, non-nuclear, “kinetic impactor,” spacecraft against the asteroid,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “Kinetic impactors are essentially cannonball technology. You pack a spacecraft with a payload of solid metal, and then crash it head-on into the asteroid, in hopes of not destroying it, but of reducing its speed by a tiny fraction. That way, by the time it reaches its predicted rendezvous point with Earth, our planet will have already moved on in its orbit, and the asteroid will fly harmlessly by.”
     “At least in theory,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “In the Maryland scenario, NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan, Russia, and China all launched hastily designed, and untested kinetic impactor ships. Three of them smashed into the asteroid. The main body of the asteroid was deflected and would miss the Earth. Denver was saved; but, unfortunately, one of the kinetic impacts inadvertently broke off a 200 foot-wide chunk of the asteroid — and that hurtling fragment was now on track to hit New York City.”
     “The only hope was to destroy the fragment with a nuclear device,” Mr. Dillow. “But, existing ground launched nuclear armed ballistic missiles weren’t designed to take on an asteroid in space, and there simply wasn’t time to launch a nuclear-armed spacecraft to intercept the asteroid chunk. New York would just have to take the hit. Millions of people were evacuated, the asteroid exploded in a fireball over Central Park — and Manhattan was wiped off the map.”
      “Mercifully, Manhattan is still very much with us,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “But, the war game was a reminder that asteroid defense isn’t science fiction; but, a serious and necessary venture.”
     “True, the chances of a civilization-destroying asteroid impact are exceedingly small, at least in the foreseeable future,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “Asteroid strikes that cause regional devastation and catastrophic climate change occur, on average, only about once every 100,000 years or more. On the other end of the scale, Earth is routinely bombarded by small asteroids that almost always burn up, or blow up high in the atmosphere, creating meteors or fireballs that are visually spectacular, but pose little or no danger. In December 2018 for example, a 30-foot wide asteroid exploded in the atmosphere over the Bering Sea with the explosive force of a dozen Hiroshima atomic bombs — but, except for a few million satellites and sensor systems, no one noticed.”
     “The most immediate threat isn’t from the largest, or smallest asteroids — but, from those in between,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “Over the past two decades, asteroid hunters with NASA and other international space agencies have identified and tracked the orbits of more than 20,000 asteroids — also known as near Earth objects (NEOs) — that pass through our neighborhood as they orbit the sun. Of those, about 2,000 are classified as potentially hazardous — asteroids that are large enough (greater than 150 yards in diameter) to cause local destruction, and that come close enough to Earth to someday pose a threat.”
     “The good news,” Mr. Dillow wrote, “is that scientists don’t expect any of these known asteroids to collide with Earth within at least the next century. Some will come pretty close, though: On an unlucky, Friday the 13th in April 2029, the thousand-foot-wide asteroid Apophis, will pass a mere 19.000 miles from Earth — closer than the satellites that bring us DISH/Direct TV.” FYI, in ancient Egyptian culture, Apophis was the Great Serpent God, and the enemy of the Sun God Ra.
     “But, here’s the bad news,” Mr. Dillow explains. “Hundreds of thousands of other NEOs, both large and small, haven’t been identified. We have no idea where they are, and where they are going. On February 15, 2013, a relatively small, 60-foot-wide asteroid traveling at 43,000 miles per hour exploded in the atmosphere near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, sending out a blast wave that injured 1,500 people. No one had seen the asteroid coming.”
     “We need to find and track these unknown invaders as soon as possible,” Mr. Dillow pleads. “But, while NASA’s “planetary defense” budget has been steadily increasing over the past decade, the $150M allocated in 2019 for asteroid detection, asteroid tracking, and related programs amounts to less than 1 percent of the space agency’s $21.5B budget.”
     “Nor, is it clear we could deflect a small, but dangerous asteroid heading our way — even if we did spot it,” Mr. Dillow wrote. “No asteroid-deflection method has ever been tested in a real-space-conditions — and, as the conference’s war game demonstrated, using untested technology always entails a risk that the mission could go terribly wrong.”
     “In 2021, NASA intends to launch its Double Asteroid Reduction Test mission to try the kinetic impactor deflection method against a non-threatening asteroid called Didymous,” Mr. Dillow noted. “More tests will be required before we can achieve even a modest planetary defense capability. (Because of legal and political objections, NASA has no plans to test nuclear-explosive-asteroid-deflection methods in space).” At least not now. But, reality and the actual threat of a potential catastrophic asteroid impact — would change everything.
     Mr. Dillow concludes, “Over its 4.5B year history, Earth has been hit millions of times by powerful asteroids, and it will inevitably be hit again — whether two countries from now or next Tuesday. So, it isn’t a question of whether humankind will have to confront the prospect of a destructive asteroid hurtling our way; it is only a question of when.”
     This is not a new story, as I have written extensively in the past three years about this threat. From my perspective, if a spacefaring country is faced with a potential catastrophic asteroid strike, they aren’t going to wait for an international consensus to do something about it. That just isn’t realistic, or likely. The idea that a nation’s leadership would just stand by and allow an asteroid to wipe out a city the size of Denver or New York, when they had the option to send a spaceship or a nuclear weapon to potentially divert it from striking Earth — because they do not have an international agreement or blessing is fatuous. Indeed, short of initiating a war, there is nothing that is likely to deter a nation from taking steps to protect itself from a clear and present danger. The nation’s populace; and the leadership’s own moral compass would demand it. Yes, it would be useful to have international support and the agreements in place or. an agreed upon decision matrix to guide decision-makers down a responsible path. But, don’t kid yourself, nation’s are going to do what is in their own national security interests — especially when their own survival may be at stake. When it comes to those nations who have no space capability and no nuclear weapons, they would be at the mercy of those who do; and, once again — it would be practically impossible for a spacefaring nation to sit on the sidelines and watch a catastrophe unfold — when there was a real possibility to avoid it. Table Top exercises like this one are useful; but, there is no substitute for the real thing. As Mike Tyson said, “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.” My guess is that nations and political leaders would react differently than this exercise showed. Rather than doing nothing because there are no legal agreements, the exercise should have revealed that there aren’t any real options to restrain a spacefaring nation from taking action to attempt to divert a catastrophic asteroid strike — and, that isn’t such a bad thing. Coming up with some ‘proven’ options that would work against a city-threatening, or worse ‘rock.’ would make all of these concerns moot. RCP,

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