Opinion | Energy & Environment

Averting an asteroid disaster can't be left to dumb luck

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

When an asteroid approximately 300 feet across just missed Earth on July 25, astronomers around the world were caught completely off-guard. 

That's twice the size of an asteroid that leveled 800 square miles in Siberia a century ago. 

Named 2019 OK, this asteroid was not even discovered until the day before it whizzed past us all moving somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 MPH, just over 40,000 miles away. Some reports said it was overlooked because it was traveling from the direction of the sun and, thus, obscured from view; others described it as a "city-killer." 

One university professor described it as "impressively close ... a pretty big deal." 

While 40,000 miles may seem like a safe distance, it is anything but. Astronomers and those who attempt to track asteroids will tell you that, statistically, a wobble here or there and we could have sustained a direct hit.

If that had happened, then an area of 2,000-plus square miles - larger than the land mass of Delaware -could have been obliterated in an instant, along with everyone in it.

Thanks to the collective failure of our world leaders, our only defense today against such an event is dumb luck. On this issue, every leader around the world is in gross dereliction of duty to the people they purport to lead.

For reasons of politics, ignorance, or indifference - or, perhaps, because they think such a disaster is merely some worn-out science-fiction cliche - they are purposely turning a blind eye to a threat more critical, perhaps, than any other facing the planet. As for much of the rest of humanity, cue the collective yawns, eye-rolls and snickers. 

Except that there won't be any of those - or much of anything else - if, or when, we are hit.

Depending upon the size of the asteroid, we could lose a city, a region, several nations or the entire planet.

As a reminder of the apocalyptic destructive force of one of these killers, on June 30, 1908, a "small" asteroid approximately 150 feet across exploded in the air over a forest in Siberia. It instantly flattened more than 80 million trees and laid waste to an area roughly twice the size of New York City. 

"So what?" you may be tempted to say. "That was more than 100 years ago, and here we are."

Yet, more and more scientists and astronomers are coming to believe that "here we are" is due entirely to luck - and, in the sooner-or-later, always-fatal game of asteroid roulette, the revolver's chamber one day will be loaded.

Just this past December, over the Pacific Ocean, another never-detected "small" asteroid exploded just 15 miles above Earth's surface with 10 times the destructive force of the nuclear weapon detonated over Hiroshima during World War II.

And just this past weekend, on Aug. 10, an asteroid almost 2,000 feet across came within 5 million miles of Earth - far enough to keep us safe, of course, but close enough to remind us of the growing danger and our defenselessness.

As of this writing, NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office - "Defense" in name only, as it can do nothing to protect our planet at the moment - is tracking five more asteroids heading in the direction of Earth.

Five. 

As has been documented, NASA and those tasked with tracking these asteroids continually miss detecting many under 500 feet across in size.

In other words, they're missing building- and skyscraper-sized boulders that, if they hit, could wipe out a city, a region or a small country and kill millions in the process.

This is not a new danger. As a consultant to NASA and the United Space Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin consortium that worked on the Space Shuttle project, I warned of such a risk many times in the past.

So far, only the fickle whims of the universe have prevented the unimaginable. But soon our luck could run out and Earth will be shaken to its core. Planetary, political and petty human or individual problems will cease the day we are hit.

President Trump and all world leaders should immediately focus on solutions. First and foremost, they should arrive at a consensus on the best way to detect and deflect asteroids on a direct path to Earth.

Meanwhile, we in the U.S. should stop delaying and politicking, and get our own moon-launch and other space exploration programs on track, because such efforts could lead to solutions to the asteroid danger. 

Anything less remains an abject failure and leaves all of humanity at risk. 

NOTE: This post has been updated to correct the likely speed at which the asteroid was traveling.

Douglas MacKinnon was a White House writer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a senior policy and communications official at the Pentagon, and a consultant to NASA and United Space Alliance. He is the author of 10 books, including "Footprints," profiling the 12 men who walked on the moon.

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