Are we ready for the Mother of All Disasters — a collision-course asteroid?

During this season of pandemic and climatic global disasters, it’s worth considering our preparedness for the worst reasonably-possible disaster: A large asteroid slamming into our planet. Although the likelihood is somewhere between unknown and small, as anyone who looks into what happened to the dinosaurs knows, this devastation far exceeds virtually any other disaster.

Were a giant asteroid to appear on a collision course, it’s likely we’d have more than days but less than decades to avoid it. The importance of early detection has led to a variety of private and government efforts to detect asteroids that might impact us. Notably, June 30 has been officially designated as international “Asteroid Day.”

Since the 1990s, NASA has conducted a program on asteroid collisions, and by the 2000s, other agencies, Congress, other countries, nonprofit organizations, the UN and Hollywood have created their own efforts. These led to the term “planetary defense” to describe integrated efforts to detect, avoid and respond to an asteroid collision — leading to the 2016 creation of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

Much of planetary defense since the 90s has focused on analysis, definitions, and procedures; not surprising for a new field cutting across many international and domestic jurisdictions, scientific topics and engineering disciplines. Important 2018-2021 studies by the White House Science & Technology Council and the National Academies of Science document efforts to define and frame planetary defense. Today, commonly agreed terminology and frameworks are in place on detecting, avoiding and responding to asteroid collisions.

Agreeing on analytic tools may be necessary, but it is by no means sufficient to address planetary defense.

Progress on detection and avoidance tools are essential. Components of detection include understanding many asteroids’ locations, sizes, compositions and trajectories — and of avoidance, understanding whether and how different avoidance tools actually prevent collisions. 

Novels, TV and movies — particularly 1998s blockbusters Deep Impact (starring Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall) and Armageddon (starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck) — have bolstered public support for investments in planetary defense.

In detection, there has been important progress:

  • Congress directed NASA to detect and characterize relevant asteroids, leading NASA to support many asteroid observatories.
  • Asteroid observatories have also emerged in Europe, Japan, Russia, Chile, Australia, Canada, China, Korea and elsewhere and, more recently, among private “citizen scientist” networks.
  • With a mandate from the UN, data is collected from asteroid observatories around the world and fed into the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, from which it is extensively analyzed. Around 10,000 such asteroids have been catalogued, probably a fraction of the total needed.
  • In 2013, the UN endorsed the creation of the International Asteroid Warning Network, a global coordinating effort linking worldwide asteroid detection efforts, which now links most major observatory programs.  
  • In 2013, NASA recommissioned an older infrared observing satellite as NEOWISE to focus only on asteroids. 
  • In 2018 Congress approved NASA’s $500+ million NEO Surveyor sun-orbiting satellite, fully-dedicated to infrared tracking of asteroids, beginning around 2028. 

Although no successful asteroid deflection could occur without prior detection, there has also been limited progress in developing asteroid deflection tools:

  • In 2016, the UN created a Space Mission Planning Advisory Group to coordinate among national space agencies their planetary defense responses, including deflection missions.
  • In 2005, NASA deployed the spacecraft Deep Impact, which slammed into comet Tempel 1 primarily to study comets. 
  • More important, NASA recently launched Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), a highly advanced, $300+ million spacecraft specifically designed to slam into the asteroid Dimorphos this September in order to measure the effect of the impact on Dimorphos’ trajectory. DART will hit Dimorphos at over 14,000 mph, and it carries a small Italian craft that will separate from DART and transmit live impact details back to Earth. In 2027, a joint European and Japanese space agencies’ spacecraft will thoroughly examine the results of DART’s impact on Dimorphos’ trajectory.
  • In April, China’s National Space Administration announced that it will deploy an asteroid deflection mission in 2025/6 and significantly increase its asteroid detection observatories.

These efforts leave large gaps, including many undocumented asteroids yet to be documented and the possibility that the trajectories of already-documented asteroids might change. And we probably won’t have a full understanding of the effectiveness of asteroid targeted impact until 2027. 

In early 2029, the large asteroid Apophis will pass less than 20,000 miles from Earth, closer than many commercial and military satellites. Discovered in 2004, it was not until 2021 that NASA was able to confidently assert that, absent unforeseen changes, Apophis does not risk an Earth collision. Nonetheless, this close encounter reminds us of both the risks and of our level of preparedness for asteroids.

Important policy issues remain. Among them:

  • With the creation of the Space Force in 2019, questions over whether leadership of planetary defense should continue with NASA or shift to the military have increased.
  • While the U.S. has robust planetary defense cooperation with its traditional friends, that defense is increasingly separated from that of the two other leading spacefaring nations, China and Russia. Prior to Crimea in 2014, U.S. planetary defense cooperation with Russia had been increasing, after which it collapsed — and after Ukraine, it has virtually ended. Similarly, Congressional prohibitions on space cooperation with China ensure limited to no cooperation with China’s growing planetary defense program.   The issue remains whether increasing the effectiveness of efforts to defend the planet from annihilation outweigh the benefits of increasing the effectiveness of our geopolitical goals.
  • It’s difficult to separate these two policy issues from the basic budgetary question of whether the current budget of roughly $160 million/year that NASA spends on planetary defense is the right investment. The Space Force is budgeted at around $25 billion and the Air Force around $175 billion. And if, for geopolitical reasons, the U.S. cannot merge its planetary defense efforts with those of China and Russia, then there is limited opportunity for any division of labor and costs with them.

Recognizing that we are in the early stages of developing a global approach to planetary defense, these and other issues need to be studied. Time is not on our side.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C. He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.

Tags Asteroid detection Asteroid impact avoidance Asteroid redirect mission asteroids Collision-course asteroid International Asteroid Warning Network NASA Planetary defense U.S. Space Force

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