NASA and Europe Warn Policy Makers about Asteroids

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NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) Ask for Funding to Avoid Future Impacts from Asteroids

There’s something about people; isn’t there? We’re animals, yes. But while we belong to the animal kingdom, in that realm we stand unique. Sure, the most minuscule differences stand between our DNA and those of most of the other mammals out there. In fact, science is discovering that other animals do a lot of things we used to think were purely human behaviors. For example, crows trade objects and understand how to use vending machines. Elephants and chimpanzees mourn their dead, and to some degree even ritualize the event. Some animals even display altruism, risking their own lives to save animals of another species from a predator. But humans seem to be the only species that can anticipate and imagine events and consequences far into the future. We can conceptualize things like giant asteroids hitting the earth and killing millions. Or (at least some of us) can see that our continued long-term reliance on fossil fuels will kill the planet.

Still, for all our ability to look beyond the proverbial horizon. We’re sodding dolts when it comes to doing anything about the long-term problems. It’s probably a tired analogy, but frogs in slowly boiling water come to mind. We feel it getting warmer, but we can’t be bothered to do anything about it until it’s too late. (That’s still my theory of what Game of Thrones is all about, by the way). 

In the case of climate change, we’ve had over two decades of (nearly) undeniable consensus within the scientific community that climate change is caused by humans. And yet, politics have kept us from doing anything about it. We can now see the effects, with rising waters, more frequent fires and severe storms, and epic droughts.

But this is Space Porn, not Earth Porn, so…

What Does This Have to Do With Asteroids?

A couple of months back I did a piece on asteroids in which I teased Elon Musk for his tweet about Apophis, a giant asteroid that has a 1/150,000 chance of hitting Earth in 2068. Here’s the thing, though. Musk wasn’t necessarily wrong. He asserted that while Apophis probably won’t hit us, there are asteroids out there that actually have a much better chance. One such rock (sadly, without a nickname) is called 2014 AG5 and has a 1/625 chance of hitting Earth in 2040. That particular asteroid is around 140 meters in diameter and, while it wouldn’t be a world-killer, it would definitely cause a bad day wherever it hit. 

The point Musk was trying to make was that we currently don’t have any real plan to deal with these threats. We know they’re coming. And we know that it’s only a matter of time before one finally gets us. Yet, we literally are doing next to nothing about it. Sound familiar?

What Does “Next to Nothing” Mean, Exactly?

Well, as I quoted in my last piece, Lindley Johnson, head of Planetary Defense Coordination at NASA, said, “While no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance of hitting Earth for the next 100 years, NASA and its partners are studying several different methodologies for deflecting [hazardous asteroids].”

Essentially, NASA’s strategy right now is time. They see the problem. They realize they have virtually no money to spend on this. What else can they do except say, “Maybe someone will figure something out in the next 100 years or so.”

The reason for this seemingly insane policy, again, is politics. NASA already operates on a fraction of a fraction of the federal budget. Most of what we see them do in the media involves launching things into space. However, a lot of that climate science I referred to earlier comes from NASA data. Furthermore, that data helped NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine change his mind on the issue. So if NASA already has a limited budget, rockets cost a ton of money to launch, and they’re doing all kinds of other important research for humanity, how much is left to figure out how to do something Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis tried in a movie?

NASA and ESA Make Their Case to Policymakers

It seems the time has come, however, for the rest of the world to take the issue of asteroids seriously. At least according to NASA and the ESA. A letter to politicians meeting in Seville, Spain, later this month, over 1,200 scientists wrote, “As citizens of our Solar System, we need to expand our body of knowledge of the Universe in which we live and how we can protect our planet from hazards originating in space.

“Near-Earth asteroids will either strike the Earth’s surface or explode in a fire all at low altitude, in both cases causing severe damage over regions of thousands of square kilometers or more.

“Unlike other natural disasters, an asteroid impact with Earth is not only one we know how to predict, but one we can prevent, by means that just need to be tested.

“Today, we are the first generation of humans who have the necessary technology to try to change the trajectory of an asteroid.

“We strongly urge governments to keep the upcoming Hera mission high on the agenda… providing new and vital knowledge necessary to protect ourselves and future generations.”

Here’s to hoping they get the funding they need. After all, if we’d have funded research into solving climate change sooner, it wouldn’t have become the existential crisis we know today.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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3 Responses

  1. I just don’t believe that regulating people into adherence will work. I don’t think it’s designed to work in America to such an extreme. (Like the Paris agreement) But we seem to be forgetting about the companies that right now are creating technology to extract Co2 from the atmosphere. They’re paid to do it, they’ll most likely sell the system to cities and make a profit. Yay capitalism.

    As for the asteroid dilemma, yeah I can see the argument about waiting for a company similar to SpaceX, which’s sole purpose is the detection and deterrence of asteroids. I would love to work for a company like that. Maybe someone like Musk has the same idea and is working on it?

    • I kind of caught that after watching the debates last night. It really does seem like Americans, in general, are suspicious of any kind of new regulation. I can understand that to a point, but it’s not like we haven’t historically made collective sacrifices in the past for the common good – rationing during World War II comes to mind. On the other hand, I don’t want the government “on my back” any more than it has to be, either. So I’m not unsympathetic.

      Also, That would be awesome if there were companies out there detecting asteroids! I just don’t like the idea of wasting so much time before we start working on solutions. The other thing I hadn’t thought about was the companies working to extract CO2. I honestly don’t care whether the government does it or whether private corporations do it, so long as somebody does something significant about climate change and leadership doesn’t stand in the way.

      I keep going back to that sarcastic Nine Inch Nails line: “Don’t give a f*** about the temperature in Guatemala, I’m sure somebody’s gonna figure it out.” It points out a concept called diffused responsibility, whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility to act in an emergency if others are around unless they’re specifically directed to do so. That’s why in first aid training they tell you to point directly at an individual and direct them personally to call 911 rather than just saying “Somebody call 911.” It feels like we’ve been saying “Somebody call 911” about climate change for 20 years and the crowd of leaders is still standing around looking at each other. There’s a lot of opportunity for leadership right now on these issues, both in the public and private sectors, I really hope we can step up.

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