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Earth-Hitting Asteroids: Katrina From Space

LOSANGELES, California - Natural events such as hurricanes, tsunamis andearthquakes rock this planet from time to time. But when the Earth gets stoned byan asteroid, consider it akin to a Katrina from outer space.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the United States in August of last year, it became a deadly, destructive, and costly episode--onethat has also become a metaphor for lack of government action, both pre- andpost strike.

Atthe current time there is no agency of the U.S. government--nor of anygovernment in the world--with the explicit responsibility to develop anddemonstrate the technology necessary to protect the planet from near-Earthobject (NEO) impacts.

TheU.S. Congress needs to be encouraged to take a step in demonstrating the abilityto deflect a menacing NEOs believes former NASA astronaut, RussellSchweickart, Chairman of the B612 Foundation. He presented an update today on dealing with troublesomeasteroids here at the 25th International Space DevelopmentConference.

Key capabilities

The goal of B612, a confab ofscientists, technologists, astronomers, astronauts, and other specialists is tosignificantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015.

Indetailing today's NEO situation, Schweickart said there are several givens:That the Earth is infrequently hit by asteroids which cross our orbit while circlingthe Sun; the consequence of such impacts ranges from the equivalent of a 15megaton (TNT) explosion to a civilization ending gigaton event; and for thefirst time in the history of humankind we have the technology which, if we areproperly prepared, we can use to prevent such occurrences from happening in thefuture.

"Remember,we're dealing here with a less frequent, but far more devastating Katrina ... aKatrina of the Cosmos," Schweickart reported. "NEOs happen so infrequently thateven though they are orders of magnitude more devastating, people don'tnaturally make that match," he told SPACE.com, "but you don't want to becaught with your pants down."

Thereare key capabilities, Schweickart said, which will enable humanity to avoiddevastating cosmic collisions: Early warning; a demonstrated deflectioncapability; and an established international decision making process.

Whilesome progress is being made, there remains significant work ahead in all theseareas, Schweickart emphasized.

Sky-sweeping surveys

Givensky-sweeping surveys and extrapolating into the future, by 2018 on the order of10,000 NEOs with some risk of impact over the next 100 years are likely to becataloged, Schweickart forecast - but there is better than an even chance thatnone of these 10,000 will actually hit the Earth in those 100 years.

"Theimportant fact however, is that a substantial number of them will appear asthough they may be headed for impact," Schweickart advised. Today, of the 104currently on impact listings, "two have an elevated risk and we are watchingthem closely," he said.

Atpresent, the two asteroids on that "keep an eye on them roster" are 2004 VD17and Apophis, formerly listed as 2004 MN4.

"Extrapolatingto 2018 we may have as many as 200 in a similarly elevated attention categoryand of growing concern to the general public," Schweickart reported today."Therefore, it is certainly possible, if not likely, that in the timeframe ofthe next 12 years we--the world--may well be in a position where we need to takeaction to insure that we will be able to carry out a deflection mission ifneeded," he said.

TheU.S. Congress amended the Space Act in 2005 to charge NASA with responsibilityto "detect, track, catalogue, and characterize" NEOs greater than some 460 feet(140 meters) in diameter. However, it has, thus far, come up short on actuallyassigning the responsibility to take action should one of these objects bediscovered headed for a collision, Schweickart pointed out.

Thereis a bit of good news forthcoming, Schweickart explained. The Congress didrequire NASA to provide by the end of 2006 an analysis of possible alternativesthat could be employed to divert an object on a likely collision course withEarth. In response to this Congressional directive, NASA is about to announce aprocess for carrying out this mandate.

Global threat ... global response

Schweickarttold the ISDC audience here, that a third leg of the triad for protecting theEarth from NEO impacts is probably the most challenging, albeit subtle.

"Itis complicated by two related facts," he said, that NEO impacts are a globalthreat, not a national one, and the only decision making body representing,essentially, the whole planet is the United Nations--a body not known for timely,crisp decision making, he added.

Still,in this area, steps forward are being made.

TheAssociation of Space Explorers (ASE)--the professional organization ofastronauts and cosmonauts--has formed a committee on NEOs which Schweickartchairs. Earlier this year, a technical presentation at a UN meeting in Vienna apprised them that this issue was coming at them.

Whilethe UN has been brought the problem, Schweickart said, the ASE is committed to bringingthem a solution. This solution will take the form of a draft United Nationstreaty--or protocol--formulated in a series of workshops over the next two years.

"Inthese NEO Deflection Policy workshops we will gather together a dozen or sointernational experts in diplomacy, international law, insurance, and riskmanagement, as well as space expertise to identify and wrestle with these difficultinternational issues," Schweickart noted. "Our goal is to return to the UN in2009 with a draft NEO Deflection Decision Protocol and present it to them fortheir consideration and deliberation."

Facing the challenge

Inwrapping up his ISDC talk, Schweickart said the NEO challenge, in a sense, "isan entry test for humankind to join the cosmic community." He reasons that, ifthere is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe "it is virtually certainthat it has already faced this challenge to survival ... and passed it."

"Ourchoice is to face this infrequent but substantial cosmic test ... or pass intohistory, not as an incapable species like the dinosaurs, but as a fractious andself serving creature with inadequate vision and commitment to continue itsevolutionary development," Schweickart concluded.

Leonard David is a Senior Space Writer for SPACE.com and the former editor of Ad Astra, the official magazine of the National Space Society

Visit SPACE.com/Ad Astra Online for more news, views and scientific inquiry from the National Space Society.

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