8.27.2008

Hit Me

What We're Not Doing About Asteroids


If you are of a certain age, you can clearly recall the stunning images of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet fragments slamming into Jupiter, wreaking such havoc the after-effects were plainly visible more than a year after the event.

If you are of another certain age, you can recall wasting several afternoons playing the arcade game Asteroids. And if you are of yet another certain age, you are dead, or so close to it that any asteroid impacts shouldn’t bother you. Although they might bother your grandkids.

But right now I am now speaking to you Asteroid players. We don’t have that. We don’t have a nimble little ship that can send streams of asteroid-fragmenting projectiles into meandering asteroids. Big surprise! What we do have are satellite-killing missiles. These aren't actually all that useful for breaking up asteroids. Satellites, as you know, go around and around, whereas an asteroid that is coming to waste your planet is coming directly at you, and from far away. Now if only we could convince the asteroids to go around and around in a nice, geosynchrous orbit...

The point is, if a Shoemaker-Levy 9 type nasty is coming our way anytime soon, we’ve got squat. Nada. Now you might think we have the capacity to go out and land astronauts on that incoming behemoth and set off a megaton type explosion, but that idea is theoretical, at best, and it is based on the assumption that we would have a lot of time in advance to see the killer rock coming before it arrives.

Wait, we can see them before they arrive … you ask? The fact is, we are not all that good at that, either. Yes, astronomers saw SL-9 coming way before it hit Jupiter, and they are pretty decent at estimating the future paths of known space objects. But asteroids on a certain trajectory, namely, coming from the sun, are often impossible to detect. This is the universe’s version of the kamikaze attack. We routinely fail to detect asteroids arriving on this kind of track until three or four days after they have passed us by.

So basically a civilization-killing asteroid could be heading towards us as we speak, and we wouldn’t know it. And if we did know it, there is very little we could do about it. Yet we’re not worried. So why aren’t we worried?

Here is former astronaut and current NASA rocket scientist Franklin Chang-Diaz:

“I am concerned enough to think that we need to not waste time arguing about it, as to whether [the threat] is real or not … because even if this is a threat which has a very low probability, all it takes is one and we are history.”

The US and China have spent billions on satellite-killing technology, an inordinately complex and apparently effective surface-to-space weapon. Wouldn’t it be worth devoting just a fraction of that funding to an asteroid-defense program? As idiotic as it can be, at times, I have to confess I am kinda fond of this civilization. Isn't it worth defending?