Apollo Astronaut Highlights Threat of Asteroid Impact

In a renewed attempt to bring the concern about a potential asteroid strike to the world’s attention, former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart briefed UN officials on Tuesday about a report entitled “Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response.” The report has been drawn up by the International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation (IPATM), formed by space explorers and scientists in an effort to put a contingency plan into action to limit the devastation caused by a theoretical impact.

The key point here is that the IPATM is not predicting an immediate catastrophic asteroid collision, it merely wants the UN to recognise there is a danger out there and to enact procedures to save lives and possibly remove the threat all together…

In possibly the most over-cooked opener I’ve seen in an Associated Press article, the author likens the asteroid threat report with “disaster planning on a galactic scale.” Well, not quite. Swap ‘galactic’ with ‘global’ and we’re good to go. However, Danica Kirka has a point, asteroid disaster avoidance is a huge undertaking. Probably the biggest undertaking the world may ever face. And I have even more bad news, the world will face an extinction-level impact at some point… but we don’t know when. Although an asteroid of a significant size has not been detected to be on a collision course with Earth, and the likelihood of it happening in our lifetime is slim (but there is a risk).

Not a good idea: We hit Comet Tempel 1 with an impactor in 2005, so we do have the ability to hit back (NASA)
Not a good idea: We hit Comet Tempel 1 with an impactor in 2005, so we do have the ability to hit back (NASA)

Unfortunately, the commonly held opinion is to dispense an incoming asteroid or comet with a few carefully placed atomic bombs (by a generic crew of Hollywood oil drillers). Alas, Armageddon this ain’t. Even if we were able to get a bomb onto the surface of an incoming object, there is little hope of it doing any good (whether we get Bruce Willis to drop it off or launch it ICBM style… or would that be IPBM, as in Interplanetary Ballistic Missile?).

What if we are dealing with a near-Earth asteroid composed mainly of metal? A nuclear blast might just turn it into a hot radioactive lump of metal. What if the comet is simply a collection of loosely bound pieces of rock? The force of the blast will probably be absorbed as if nothing happened. In most cases, and if we are faced with an asteroid measuring 10 km across (i.e. a dinosaur killer), it would be like throwing an egg at a speeding train and expecting it to be derailed.

There are of course a few situations where a nuclear missile might work too well; blowing the object up into thousands of chunks. But in this case it would be like making the choice between being shot by a single bullet or a shot gun; it’s bad if you have one impact with a single lump of rock, but it might be worse if thousands of smaller pieces make their own smaller impacts all over the planet. If you ever wondered what it might be like to be sandblasted from space, this might be the way to find out!

There may be a few situations where nuclear missiles are successful, but their use would be limited.

Rusty Schweickart at an NSS conference in 2004, plus a graphic reminder of the constant threat from near-Earth asteroids (Jeff Foust/NASA)
Rusty Schweickart at an NSS conference in 2004, plus a graphic reminder of the constant threat from near-Earth asteroids (Jeff Foust/NASA)

Personally, I think using nuclear weapons against a comet or asteroid is a bad idea, and so does Schweickart. In fact, the ex-astronaut believes there might be some ulterior motives for the push to use nuclear weapons against threatening asteroids. By clearing the use of nuclear weaponry in space (under the guise of “global safety”), it may open the floodgates for nuclear proliferation in Earth orbit.

Schweickart has specifically targeted the goal of putting together a non-nuclear solution to the deflection of asteroids. However, mankind will need a massive lead time to enact any avoidance measure. We will therefore need better observation techniques (and we are getting better at spotting and tracking asteroids, as was the case with asteroid 2008 TC3, the first ever asteroid impact predicted by astronomers), and we will need to work on novel deflection techniques.

This is a natural disaster, which is larger, potentially, than any other natural disaster we know of,” Schweickart said in his presentation to the UN. “However, it is preventable… that’s a very important thing to keep in mind. But it is our responsibility to take action to do that.”

And, in the form of the B612 Organization, Schweickart’s brainchild, the appropriate action against a theoretical large asteroid is being tirelessly researched.

However, it is hard to understand why there’s not more astronomers taking on this task. More funding needs to be supplied to groups of astronomers, constantly watching the night sky. Much of asteroid astronomy is done through automated telescopes and advanced computer models, so more resources should be freed up to make asteroid impact prediction an easier job for the few working on these projects around the planet. Perhaps NASA legends like Rusty Schweickart, communicating the catastrophic effects of a possible asteroid strike to the UN will at least highlight the issue, hopefully placing more of an importance on this potential end to civilization as we know it…

While the probability of a highly destructive impact in the immediate future is slight, the consequence of such an occurrence is extreme, and mitigation efforts should begin now.” – The B612 Organization

Sources: Physorg, Universe Today
Leading image credit: http://talklikeaphysicist.com/2008/tennis-ball-sprayed-and-splashed-high-speed-photography/

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5 thoughts on “Apollo Astronaut Highlights Threat of Asteroid Impact”

  1. Schweickart is right, we cannot let them use nuclear weapons in space! We really don’t need a nuclear space age…

    I have a question, what would happen to our atmosphere (besides a great meteor shower) if we explode an asteroid to billions of chunks smaller than sand?

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