Planning for an Asteroid Threat

It sounds like a script from a science-fiction movie, a giant asteroid on a collision course with earth, threatening all life on the planet. But the existence of this existential threat is not entirely fiction and last week’s near misses suggest governments should pay more attention, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Those with a bent for the supernatural might think that cosmic events last Friday were the sending of some sort of message. The earth encountered two asteroids, a known one that passed closely but harmlessly as predicted, and an unknown one that was smaller but still big enough to cause an explosion, estimated at 300-500 kilotons, that injured about a thousand people in Russia.

The two objects were on much different trajectories, and NASA’s Near Earth Object Program tells us that the two encounters occurring on the same day were “pure coincidence.” If anyone chooses to see the occurrences as a kind of warning, however, that is probably a good thing, because protection from bombardment by asteroids and comets deserves more priority and resources than it currently gets.

Some asteroids are so large they can have their own moons, like asteroid 243 Ida, photographed by the Galileo spacecraft on Aug. 28, 1993. The tiny moon is visible to the right side of the asteroid. (Photo credit; NASA)

The insufficient priority illustrates deficiencies in our political process that manifest themselves in many other ways. One of those deficiencies, which is rooted in a more general psychological tendency, is an inability to analyze properly low-probability events and responses to them.

Oh, sometimes it sounds like we are paying good attention to such events. It was just a few years ago that Dick Cheney was saying that even if there were only a one percent chance of something like an aggressive dictator getting his hands on weapons of mass destruction, we need to do something about it. But that comment did not really reflect any analysis.

The probability of a problem occurring does matter, partly because of the costs and risks of trying to do something about the problem. Cheney’s comment was only a rhetorical device for expressing his preference for doing something about the particular dictator he had in mind.

More generally, we tend to give too much attention to certain low-probability events that for some reason have come to frighten and fascinate us — which is true of some terrorism scenarios. Meanwhile, other low-probability events we basically ignore, even though the very high consequences if they did occur mean that if we apply good expected-utility analysis we should be paying more attention to them.

Richard Posner’s book Catastrophe is a useful corrective to these tendencies, describing what good policy analysis ought to look like when addressing low-probability, high-impact events. Among Posner’s conclusions is that the danger of asteroid collisions probably ought to get more priority than it has received so far.

Friday’s events were enough to elicit some encouraging sounds from politicians, including an op-ed from Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey — a physicist and former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory — and his congressional colleague Donna Edwards, D-Maryland. Perhaps more significant, because it comes from the side of the aisle more accustomed to opposing increased spending on anything other than the military, was a statement from Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Although Smith did not say anything about increased spending, he did describe work on this subject as “critical to our future.” Smith said, “We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth.”

One can hope that members of Congress will come to recognize protection from natural threats from outer space as being at least as much “defense” in the most literal sense as much that is funded in the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense.

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays in Russia. Astronomers tell us that hits from asteroids on the order of the ones that caused Friday’s air burst and the 1908 Tunguska event (which flattened trees over a wide area farther east in Siberia) are once-in-a-century events. Russia has now taken on behalf of the planet the hits for the Twentieth and — so far — the Twenty-First centuries. Prime Minister Medvedev made a comment about how Friday’s event shows that the whole planet is vulnerable, and a deputy prime minister was arguing for some kind of terrestrial defense system to reduce damage from similar happenings.

One might wonder, however, how much Russians will be inclined to shrug off asteroid hits as just another of the many impositions and hazards they have to put up with. The area around Chelyabinsk, where the meteor struck, has long been one of the worst spots in the world for radioactive pollution. This is because of a plutonium production and reprocessing complex that has had several accidents, including an especially bad one in 1957.

The Danish filmmaker Boris Bertram made a documentary in Chelyabinsk called Tankograd (a nickname for the city, after its role as a producer of armaments in World War II) that addresses the radioactivity problem as necessarily a concern for health care professionals who have to deal with the consequences but not a subject that is dwelt upon by other citizens going about their daily lives.

The international dimension — which Medvedev noted — of the threat from objects in space gets to another shortcoming in the U.S. political process. This involves the antipathy some American political persuasions have against almost anything multilateral, especially where decisions of national security are involved.

On this subject unilateralism will not work. This is not mainly because of shortcomings in what the United States can do technologically (although we ought to remind ourselves that currently we are dependent on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station).

NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005 successfully crashed a spacecraft into a comet. A bigger need for international cooperation may be in the detection of earth-bound objects. The currently weakest part of that effort involves the part of the sky visible only from the southern hemisphere.

The stickiest issues involving international cooperation and possible American reservations about it may concern decisions about taking preventive action once an earth-bound object is sighted. Even if an object-deflecting system is physically in place and ready to go, how is the decision made to use it?

We can hope that any such situation that arises will be a straightforward one in which one can accurately say that what’s good for the United States is good for the planet, and the U.S. president gives the order to save both. But one can imagine other situations, such as if the object is discovered too late to be able to keep it from hitting Earth altogether, and the issue becomes one in which intervention might make it more likely or less likely to hit certain parts of the planet.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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3 comments on “Planning for an Asteroid Threat

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    That movie with Bruce Willis kind of created a false impression of what could actually be accomplished. Drilling into an asteroid, planting a nuke, then fragmenting it would not change the trajectory of all the resulting fragments. It would be like getting hit by a shotgun blast instead of a cannon ball. Fragmentation would vastly increase the surface area of the fragments, thus enhancing oxidation and consequent damage to the atmosphere. Some of the fragments would probably be accelerated by the blast, increasing their destructive force.

    Most people, including me, can’t wrap their heads around the magnitude of the forces involved. But, we do know this: Scientists claim that the blast over Russia was equivalent to a 20 kiloton nuke. That translates into about 87 times ten to the 12th Joules of energy. Assuming that asteroids travel at about 30,000 mph, and the kinetic energy of a moving body is given by the equation, E=mass times velocity squared divided by two, that would take about a one million kilogram object. If it were made of iron, which is not unlikely, at a density of 7.86 grams per cubic centimeter, it would only be about five yards square. Not very big, not very easy to track, and just about impossible to stop. I suspect the one that hit the other day wasn’t really as powerful as they claim or made of a material as cohesive as iron. But hey, I’m not a physicist. My math may be all wrong. But traveling at 13,333 meters per second, there are two chances anything could be done to rendezvous with and divert such a thing: slim and none.

    • James Crowe on said:

      @F.G. Sanford,

      Thanks for that very lucent, very cogent and very disturbing analysis. I feel so much better now (eye roll).

      Anyway, maybe we can figure out how to magnetize the moon to capture all those iron miscreants causing mischief in our ‘hood. Or maybe create a similar orbiting deflection station that zaps and atomizes the cosmic spitball with one of them there high energy weapons beam we keep almost hearing about. Maybe we’ll pay more attention if we name each incoming threat after an al-Qaeda member of the board of affiliated terrorists. Just assume I’ve thrown a question mark in there somewhere.

      Thanks again for the heads-up, as it were.

  2. Otto E. Rossler on said:

    There is a piece of artful fiction titled “The Comet” by poet Bruno Schulz of 1937 which reflects very deeply on this side of the human condition. He was destined to be killed in a concentration camp and his main work, “The Messiah,” remains to be searched for.