Imagine you’re an astronomer who discovered an asteroid. Happy days, you might be able to name it after yourself (99942 O’Neill has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?). At first you feel little concern, after all, we are getting better at spotting near-Earth objects. But when you get news from another observatory that they had been tracking the same object weeks earlier, your interest is piqued. On the one hand, you didn’t technically discover it, but you did confirm its existence. Unfortunately this is probably the one observation you really didn’t want to make. It turns out that this chunk of rock is heading in our direction. And unlike the Earth-grazers that have come before, this asteroid isn’t going to drift past our planet, it isn’t even going to skip off our atmosphere, it’s going to hit us.
Now imagine you are the president of a nation determined to stop the asteroid from hitting Earth. What do you do? Naturally you’d call your team of
oil drillers scientific advisors to present your options. One space scientist suggests sending a rocket to the asteroid, strapping it on in the hope it might be nudged out of harms way. The astronomer who made the discovery of the killer asteroid is having a nervous break down in the corner of the room. Your military advisor is urging you to attach a nuclear warhead to your most powerful rocket, in an attempt to obliterate the target. The Secretary of State is calling for restraint; we need to collaborate with other nations, blasting nuclear missiles in to space would violate all kinds of international treaties, wars have been started for less, perhaps someone else has a better idea…?
Although I doubt we’ll ever be fully prepared to act swiftly and decisively in the event of discovering a civilization-ending asteroid, we can at least try. Defending the planet against the ever-present threat of impact is one of the most critical abilities we must develop as a race, ensuring the long-term future of our species. Fortunately, a team of scientists, engineers, policy makers and lawyers (lawyers?) are teaming up to confront this problem…
On April 23rd and 24th at The University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska, a unique collection of international experts will participate in the Near-Earth Objects: Risks, Responses and Opportunities forum. Although there is no immediate threat from an asteroid or comet colliding with us, this group will share ideas and plans on how to enact an emergency NEO-countermeasure should an astronomical nightmare knock on our door. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a plan we can enact should the worst happen?
However, this isn’t your standard anti-asteroid meet-up. It is being hosted by the university’s College of Law in an attempt to “examine the legal and institutional challenges of international protocols if large asteroids or other interplanetary objects come too close to Earth for comfort.” It is one thing to develop the technology to hopefully deflect an incoming asteroid, but it’s quite another to “unite world leaders” in an attempt to address this sticky situation.
“Examining how we, as an international community, develop a mechanism to make decisions on courses of action is a crucial building block in putting together an effective response to future NEO threats,” said Ben Baseley-Walker, Secure World Foundation Legal and Policy Consultant.
“As a fundamentally global problem with profound potential geo-political implications should mitigation measures fail, it is essential to find a consensus on an international decision-making forum and mechanism well in advance of a crisis situation involving a NEO threat.”
After all, there’s nothing worse than being blamed for turning a mountain of iron ore into a radioactive mountain of hotter iron ore when it impacts a nation you’re not particularly friendly with. It’s not necessarily a good idea to be throwing nuclear missiles around, as former-Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart and his B612 Foundation is very keen to emphasise.
In a recent press release, it is pointed out that the number of NEO threats are on the rise as observation techniques improve. It is thought that in the next 15 years, we could potentially discover another 500,000 NEOs, many of which could have an orbit that will bring them uncomfortably close to the Earth. Last year, a commission was set up by Schweickart to urge the UN to establish a global framework we can depend upon to take the right course of action.
There are a variety of techniques we could employ to deflect future marauding asteroids, but the first hurdle to any international effort is cooperation, it would be nice to know that international politics or treaties are not going to hinder any attempts to save the planet from one of the most potent threats we may ever face.
Now this is a conference I’d like to sit in on…