TCS Daily

Preventing Armageddon

By James Pinkerton - July 22, 2002 12:00 AM

How does one tangibilize the intangible? That is, how does one get people to think about something that has not happened-or more precisely, has not happened in a long time?

That's the challenge faced by folks who, for example, want to sell disaster insurance. You might have seen those TV commercials in which earnest pitch-persons urge people to buy flood-insurance policies. That's a good idea, although oftentimes, of course, Uncle Sam bails people out whether or not they were prudentially prepared for disaster. But there are other kinds of disasters for which insurance may come too late, for which the only real strategy is prevention.

That was the subject of a recent conference at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington: "The Asteroid Threat: Identification and Mitigation Strategies."

OK, OK, it's true that America and the world are not under active assault right now from deep-impacting, Armageddon-inducing space rocks. But that's the point: we're not getting blasted right now, so we should be insuring ourselves now. In America, at least, floods are manageable; they are matters of millions, maybe billions, of dollars. But an asteroid strike could take millions, and maybe even billions, of lives.

Life-annihilating strikes have happened at least five times in planetary history, including one such smack-down 65 million years ago. That's when a rock no more than a dozen kilometers across struck the Yucatan Peninsula in what's now Mexico and put the dinosaurs down for the eonic count.

Yes, that was a long time back, the Cretaceous Period, to be exact. But just 40,000 years ago -- not such a far piece, in the human scheme of things -- a 35-meter space stone hit Arizona, leaving a crater that many Americans have been to visit. It's fun now to see it as a tourist, but it wouldn't have been such a joy to be there when it hit with the force of 300 Hiroshima bombs.

And just in the last century, in 1908, another space particle, no more than 60 meters across, exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, with the force of 600 Hiroshima A-bombs, reducing a 40-kilometer wide patch of forest to kindling. If the Tunguska bolide had hit further east at the same latitude, it would have hit the Russian city of St. Petersburg, and that space rock, which merely wiped out unlucky herds of reindeer, would have been a mini-death star, a cosmic weapon of mass destruction.

Indeed, that's part of the challenge: to realize that an angry God, or at least an angry universe, is constantly raining devastation in our general direction -- and it's only a matter of time before we get hit again, hard. Once that chilling realization is absorbed, the further and greater challenge is to get people thinking about safeguarding themselves.

Prolife, Prospace

These grim and yet profound challenges have been taken up by Prospace, a grassroots space-advocacy organization on July 10. In the words of Prospace president Marc Schlather, "It's sort of like 9-11. People ignored the threat until it happened." Only after that tragedy, and billions spent on recovery, Schlather observed, did America commit billions to terror prevention.

A similar effort, Schlather declared, is needed now. He's right. We need to look ahead, to a disaster of epochal proportions, and then we need to work backward from the extinction-level event we don't want to see -- and figure out how we can protect ourselves, our posterity, and our planet.

Because, declares Brian Marsden, director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the threat is all around us. At least 16 objects of potentially devastating size, he told the Prospacers, have passed near the earth -- "near" defined as within twice the distance between earth and the moon, or about 384,000 kilometers. One such NEO -- Near Earth Object -- perhaps 15% larger than the Tunguska-destroyer, zipped within 120,000 kilometers of spaceship earth on June 14, although ominously, astronomers didn't detect it until three days after its fly-by. In fact, an estimated 1000 NEOs, measuring one kilometer or larger, swirl through our galactic neighborhood.

Getting Paranoid About 'Roids

So what to do? If all humanity is threatened by NEOs' getting too close for comfort, then all humanity should band together in support of the technology needed for defense. And that leads, in the long run, to scenarios seen in '90s films such as "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact," in which earthlings develop the capacity to deploy into space to destroy or deflect incoming 'roids.

Underscoring the seriousness of these scenarios, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, spoke at the conference, endorsing its high-concept mission. He praised "dual use" technology that would "piggyback" planetary defense on top of strategic missile defense, an issue that Rohrabacher has been intimately involved with since serving as a presidential speechwriter in the Reagan White House. NEOs are "a grave threat we should be investing in," he maintained.

Interestingly, Rohrabacher went further, demonstrating that he wasn't just a typical politician, volunteering to spend extra money to solve every problem. The Golden State GOPer was very specific when he suggested that funds for climate change research could and should be diverted to earth's defense.

Obviously Rohrabacher is an optimist -- optimistic that good science will drive out bad science, that a better calculus for real and imagined threats will be developed. But in the meantime, those not quite so optimistic about sound policy-making should still be appropriately realistic about astro-defense.

And the beginning of a realistic strategy is getting a handle on the threat. Great Britain has been a leader in NEO-identification; Italy has an energetic space-watch program as well. The United States, according to program speaker Colleen Hartman, Director of NASA's Solar System Exploration Division, spends about $4 million annually on its Near Earth Observations Program.

Causes and Effects

But that's not enough, insisted Air Force General Simon "Pete" Worden, Deputy Director of Operations, U.S. Space Command. The threat from NEOs is even greater than the once-a-century risk of a Tunguska-like strike, he told the Prospacers. An even more immediate concern is that 30 or so small asteroids hit the earth's upper atmosphere every year. These rogue rocks can cause detonations the size of Hiroshima, but they remained mostly harmless -- until we entered the anxious age of nuclear proliferation, in which enemy countries stare down at each other in unblinking anger. Recalling such a space blast occurring over the Mediterranean on June 6, Worden wondered what might have happened if the shallow-impact rock had struck along the same latitude in a place where nerves were already strained nearly to the nuking point:

Imagine that the bright flash accompanied by a damaging shock wave had occurred over Delhi, India, or Islamabad, Pakistan. Neither of those nations have the sophisticated sensors that can determine the difference between a natural NEO impact and a nuclear detonation. The resulting panic in the nuclear-armed and hair-trigger militaries there could have been the spark that would have ignited the nuclear horror we'd avoided for over a half-century. This situation alone should be sufficient to get the world to take notice of the threat of asteroid impact.

To that end, Worden, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself, not for the Air Force, suggested the creation of a Natural Impact Warning Clearing House, a body that would expand on NASA's NEO work and serve as more of an internationally minded Distant Early Warning system. One senses a bit of bureaucratic entrepreneurship here, as the Pentagon seeks to gain some astro-turf at NASA's expense, but what's wrong with that? Two entities competing to do the better job of spotting NEOs can only work to the good of the rest of us.

Indeed, two entities, each with its own kind of credibility with the public, might do a world of good -- and do the world good -- in terms of public education about the threats we face. And so to the original concern: tangibilizing the intangible, not waiting until the asteroidal equivalent of 9-11. As Rick Tumlinson, director of FINDS -- the Foundation for the International Non-governmental Development of Space -- said in a ringing speech, asteroid defense should be a part of homeland defense. Because the earth, and not just America, is our true homeland, we should be doing everything we can to protect it and, in so doing, protect ourselves.



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