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Giant Asteroids and International Security
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A panel of international scientists has suggested that the UN start preparing for a global defense against the threat of asteroids on collision courses with Earth. Though a large asteroid collision is extremely unlikely (the panel calculate a likelihood of two or three events every 1,000 years), the consequences of such an occurrence could be catastrophic, with potential to threaten all life on the planet.

The scientists predict that by 2020, telescope technology will allow researchers to identify which asteroids orbiting the sun could potentially pose a threat to Earth, though it is impossible to know exactly which ones are really on a collision course until it is too late to take action. Therefore, the scientists recommended a proactive policy of defense and protection, as quoted in this article from the Guardian:

'The international community must begin work now on forging three impact prevention elements - warning, deflection technology and a decision-making process - into an effective defence against a future collision,' said the International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, which is chaired by former American astronaut Russell Schweickart.

The recommended course of action for deflecting asteroids is still a largely uncertain one:

The panel said it would be necessary to launch missions to deflect or destroy asteroids that have only a one in 10, or even a one in 100, risk of hitting our planet. 'Over the next 10 to 15 years, the process of discovering asteroids will likely identify dozens of new objects threatening enough that they will require proactive decisions by the United Nations,' the report added. In addition, such missions will have to be launched well ahead of a predicted impact, so that slight deflections by spaceships can induce major changes in an asteroid's paths years later.
…any effective protection system will require funding of about $100m (£68m) a year to provide a full survey of the skies, combined with investment in spacecraft that can reach an asteroid and then deflect it. This would be achieved either by crashing the spacecraft on to the asteroid or by triggering a nuclear explosion in space.

Experts in the field have been agitating for a while to secure more funding for research into asteroid threats and potential solutions. In May, Alexis Madrigal blogged on Wired Science about a research center created by Iowa State University where experts from around the world will study the topic of asteroid deflection. As professor Bong Wie told Wired, the research center was meant to fill a large gap in understanding about the problem:

"As of 2008, there is no consensus among professionals which approach or technology can be actually used when we have to use it."

While we continue to be wary of untested technological solutions to complex natural problems, we agree that investing in new research and keeping watch of extraterrestrial bodies that could threaten our planet is a wise move for science.

More than that, however, is the importance of promoting the big-picture view of investing in a search for long term planetary solutions (Madrigal includes a cynical nod to this challenge at the end of his post, also). This is a theme that asteroid deflection shares with combating climate change, and other planetary mysteries yet unsolved. As Jamais Cascio wrote in a 2006 post about asteroid science:

The biggest problems our planet faces are, unfortunately, the ones that we seem least well-equipped, cognitively, to handle. Evolution has gifted our brains with the ability to analyze a situation quickly, looking for subtle patterns and clues related to past experiences. Problems that unfold slowly, or take a long time to show change (for the better or worse), or have a significant lag between cause and effect, appear to our monkey brains as not-problems. We need to train ourselves to take the long view, to examine the big picture.
It's possible that as we figure out how to deal with climate disaster, we will pick up that training as a matter of course. If we're lucky, we'll do so in time to deal with the next round of big picture problems, asteroid or otherwise.

You can read more about the interplay between humans, Earth and space in our archives:

Greens in Space
Recycling Space Junk
Environmental Law in Space
To Understand and Protect Our Home Planet
The Moons of Saturn

Image credit: flickr/goldenrectangle, Creative Commons license.

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Comments

This has to be Plan B... Trusting such a mission to the United Nations has all the strategic wisdom of 'planning' to bring a knife to a gunfight.


Posted by: DonQ on 11 Dec 08

...and yet, logically, it is a global problem of the sort that the UN is supposed to be set up.

It is, of course, ludicrous to suggest that the UN will do the 'heavy lifting' should a crisis of this nature crop up. There is no reason they can't do the long term contingency planning, though.

Indeed, in some ways, they are better suited to it than 3-4 year term governments.

How the literature has handled the issue over the years:

'Armageddon' - yeehaw cowboys madly rush to blow things up. No thought involved (result: nuke scale grapeshot and no, we won't always have Paris!)

'Deep Impact' - thoughtful astronauts quickly move to blow things (and themselves) up. (result: nuke scale grapeshot (not shown till after the movie), and the eastern US seaboard gets a bath... a level 0 event on the Cascio scale)

'Hammer of God' - very thoughtful astronauts set up a slingshot thruster in good time. The comet, and various political/religious factions have other ideas. (result: a 'money or the box' situation. Should they leave the comet and hope it misses, or blow it into two, thereby accepting that one of the chunks will cause a certain, but lesser, catastrophe)

'Lucifers Hammer' - nobody does anything until halfway through, when they duck for cover... and *then* start thinking (result: a level 2 apocalypse on the Cascio scale)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 11 Dec 08

i would have thought that irreversible global climate change would be enough of a scare to get all nations to work together. maybe it takes an asteroid! the effects are much quicker, although in the end somewhat similar. maybe some climate scientists are making this up to get us to practice working together. :)


Posted by: melanie on 12 Dec 08

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