CCNet SPECIAL: THE "OUT OF THIS WORLD" THREAT
From Sourcerunner.com, July 2001
By Matt Harrington
It sounds like something that belongs in Hollywood. After all, the idea
scored two summer blockbusters in Armageddon and Deep Impact. Most
Americans, and probably most people throughout the world, have the
mentality of "Oh, that will never happen..."
Unfortunately, by the rules of science and statistics, it will happen.
It is no longer a question of if, but when.
It is the threat of an asteroid striking an impact into the Earth's
This threat is so real that as this investigative report is processed,
an asteroid could be blazing through space on a collision course with
Earth. Even worse is the possibility that one capable of nearly wiping
out humanity could have just entered Earth's atmosphere, and we would
not have known about it.
It is inherent that the above analogy is, of course, a theory that,
while it may be true and proven, may be composed a millennium or two
premature. An asteroid of any notable size may not strike the planet
again for 100 million years. However, there is also the possibility that
I will win the lottery, wake up next to Pamela Anderson Lee, and be
named Time's "Man of the Year" all in the same day. Some things are
certainly possible, but not likely to say the least.
However, efforts to counter this threat of biblical proportions are
nowhere near where they need to be.
To date, scientists estimate that there are roughly 1,000 of these Near
Earth Objects (NEO) bigger than 1km in size, and 1,000,000 or so larger
than 50 m in diameter (the threshold for breaking through the Earth's
Despite the importance of the NEO search, fewer than 100 people are
directly involved with the search at this time. This is a number that
Out of the groups involved in the search, and the most productive, is
the LINEAR search program. Headed by MIT's Lincoln Lab and based in New
Mexico with US Air Force and NASA support, LINEAR operates to two
telescopes and has dominated NEO search efforts over the past few years.
Other search groups include: NASA and the U.S Air Force's co-sponsored
NEAT search program in Hawaii; the University of Arizona's Space Watch
Survey; the LONEOS survey at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona;
and the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson Arizona, both of which are
supported by NASA. Additionally, there are other International search
programs, along with contributions from amateur astronomers.
In 1998, the U.S federal government analyzed the NEO threat with
"Asteroids: Perils and Opportunities," a hearing before the
congressional Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
Congressman and Chairman Dana Rohrabacher scolded NASA at the hearing
for not "walking the talk," by funding the NEO search program at
NASA countered by stating that they had developed a rich program of
research on asteroids and comets which will provide essential
information if the nation were ever to divert an asteroid. Dr. Carl
Pilcher, of the University of Arizona, stated that their Space Science
Strategic Plan includes logging 90% of the NEOs with diameters larger
than 1 km within 5-6 years and that NASA has put into place a program
that duplicates this same duty. He also stated that the budget has been
doubled to $3 million and NASA will maintain at least this level of
funding in the future.
Additionally, NASA is providing approximately $1 billion, including the
recent and heavily publicized NEAR Shoemaker mission, over the next
decade in asteroid/comet missions. These missions will study the make-up
of both asteroids and comets, which scientists have argued will help in
planning possible deflection strategies.
Despite the importance of the NEO search, fewer than 100 people are
directly involved with the search at this time.
It is these deflection strategies that have garnered interest ranging
from PhD's to high school science classes. Romanticized somewhat by
Hollywood, these strategies would require planning and accuracy on
levels never seen before. They certainly couldn't be managed in a year
or two, let alone 18 days, as Armageddon would have you believe.
Realistically, after a decade so or planning, one would see a robotic
mission of some sort go into action. This, however, is where the debate
Everything from attaching solar sails to the surface of the asteroid to
nuclear detonation has been theorized. There is no "right" answer on how
to solve a potential deflection scenario, but as mentioned above, the
precision of the plan would have to be perfect. The slightest
miscalculation could lead to turning one giant asteroid into several
smaller ones, which could create a larger global catastrophe.
Presently, there is no such plan in place, and if an asteroid or comet
had a scheduled rendezvous with the earth, there is nothing we could do,
Depending on the size of the object, a strike to the earth's surface
would potentially cripple, and possibly bring an end to civilization as
we know it. A "nuclear winter" of sorts would develop, as dust would
block incoming sunlight, and would in turn drastically reduce
temperatures, ruin crops, plants, etc. If the object were to slam into
one of earth's oceans, a tidal wave of unimaginable proportions would
develop, traveling faster than the speed of sound, and obliterating
everything in its path.
The sheer horror of the end of the world also brings up the point of the
public's "right to know."
In March of 1998, this very dilemma was brought to the forefront of the
world, as for a very brief period astronomers thought they had
discovered a doomsday asteroid. Headlines of "the end of the world" were
seen on newspapers across the globe.
However, after more data was collected, scientists reversed their
previous statement and said there would be no chance that the asteroid,
known as 1997 XF11, would come any closer than 600,000 miles from Earth.
Most people would agree we have a right to know if we are going to die,
but along with it is the dilemma of maintaining some sort of global
stability in order to avoid complete chaos. This is important, as
international cooperation and focus would be vital in the success of a
deflection mission of any kind.
This introduction is just the tip of the iceberg, as this investigation
I recently sat down with NEO expert Dr. Benny Peiser to gain a better
scientific explanation of this threat, and to see what is keeping it
from getting the attention and funding that it so desperately needs...
For Part 2 of this investigative report, I got the scoop on this threat
from NEO expert, Dr. Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University in
the U.K., and moderator of the Internet newsletter, CCNet.
Here's this one-on-one interview...
1. You moderate CCNet, a very popular NEO newsletter. What do you hope
CCNet will accomplish, and what has it accomplished already?
Since its start in 1997, CCNet has attracted more than 1000
subscribers, half of whom are astronomers as well as planetary and Earth
scientists. As a scholarly network, it has become the most reliable news
outlet and discussion forum regarding the potential threat we face due
to the impact of cosmic objects. That's why more than 200 science
journalists from around the globe are also members of CCNet. As the
founder and moderator of CCNet, it is my aim to provide accurate and
reliable information that is based on hard evidence, rational thinking
and not on exaggeration and hype. I also hope that the responsible and
dispassionate way CCNet is handling a potentially catastrophic issue
will serve as a positive example how to deal, in a rational way, with
other environmental threats.
2. How can a SOURCERUNNER reader subscribe to the CCNet Newsletter?
That's easy. They only need to contact the CCNet moderator (that's me)
at Liverpool John Moores University <firstname.lastname@example.org> - and
they'll be subscribed.
3. Despite increased efforts by the scientific community, the public at
large is still very unaware of this threat. What can be done to improve
public understanding of the NEO threat?
Due to the ongoing research by astronomers and the reporting in the
media, I believe that the public is only too aware of the general impact
hazard. The best way to improve the public understanding of the NEO
threat is to present our scientific findings in a clear and
matter-of-fact manner. We have to strike a balance between presenting a
threat that has the potential of being extremely severe, and our
realization that the probability of a massive catastrophe is extremely
remote in the near future.
4. To almost contradict the last question, should the public be more
informed about the situation? Should it be left to the government and
scientific community, as "panic mode" is always a possible negative
side-effect to a more informed public.
It is not so much a question of "more" than a question of being better
informed. The public has every right to get accurate information that is
well balanced. Too often, we have been using the wrong language. But I
should add in our defense that the NEO community has been going through
a very significant learning process. To its credit, many of us have
learned our lessons from past mistakes.
5. Has the Astronomical community taken any kind of uniformed stance on
the public's "right to know" about a possible NEO impact?
The International Astronomical Union has drawn up guidelines how to
announce a possible impact threat. Unfortunately, these guidelines are
flawed and have already caused a number of false alarms. The main
problem has been that potential impact threats were announced
prematurely instead of waiting for more observational data.
Embarrassingly, these false alarms had to be retracted once new data
became available. I and others have called upon the IAU to change these
guidelines so that the NEO community will be protected from accusations
of "crying wolf". Instead of rushed announcements and false alarms, it
would be much wiser to make the data of such potentially hazardous
objects available on the Internet. In almost all of these cases, more
observational information about newly discovered asteroids will
eliminate them as a potential threat.
6. Is the NEO search in better hands with the government or private
sector? Is a joint effort better?
I am all in favor of increased private involvement in space exploration
(including NEO searches and NEO exploration/exploitation).
7. In regards to NEO exploitation, how far away are we from mining
asteroids for minerals, etc.?
One or two generations for first experimentation - perhaps three or four
generations for space industrialisation. As far as I see it, it is
crucial to convey the massage of the enormous benefits the exploitation
of asteroids and comets has for future space colonization. These objects
will provide essential resources necessary for space industry and space
exploration. My guess is that we will have solved the impact hazard
problem in the next 100 to 200 years, that is if we are lucky enough not
to be hammered by then.
8. The SpaceGuard Survey is currently hoping to find 90% of 1km or
larger NEOs before the end of the decade. Why 90%? Why not 100%?
The Americans are very pragmatic people. They don't like aims that may
not be achievable. Given NASA's limited budget for NEO searches, they
simply developed a 10-year plan that was cheap and looked effective.
Many people, however, doubt whether NASA will be able to achieve even
this rather modest target in the next 5 years or so.
9. What about NEOs smaller than 1km? Is there a search underway to track
these objects as well?
NEO researchers in the UK, including myself, have argued for many years
that NASA's obsession with the largest objects (1km+) underestimates the
more likely threat from smaller NEOs. As a result of our efforts and
arguments, the UK Task Force on NEOs has acknowledged this particular
issue and has recommended that specific search efforts should be
undertaken to find those objects smaller than 1km. Obviously, the
likelihood of being hit by such objects is far higher.
10. Hypothetical situation: Let's say a NEO about 3km in size is
discovered. It is projected to strike the earth in 2010. What can be
done to deflect, or destroy it?
We might be able to do something about it if we had 10 years time for
preparation. Technological progress is evolving at such explosive speed,
that an international effort might be able to avert a global disaster.
On the other hand, we simply lack experimental experience so far.
11. There is a fury of missions currently underway to study asteroids
and comets. Could you comment on some of these missions, and how they'll
directly help in NEO deflection?
In order to succeed with NEO deflections, we need to know the physical
nature and composition of asteroids and comets. The current asteroid and
comet missions have primarily this particular research focus. The Deep
Impact mission furthermore will actually attempt to impact a comet to
assess the reaction of a space object being punctuated. These are vital
space missions which we need to gain a better understanding of the
possible methods for planetary defense.
12. Do we have the capability to track NEO impacts on the Moon, or do we
just have to be "lucky" to see a new one?
Given the growing number of amateur astronomers and the increasing
sophistication of telescope technologies, it is becoming fairly easy
nowadays to observe lunar impacts. In fact, lunar impacts were observed
(and actually video-taped) during the 1999 Leonid Meteor shower. The
astronomical community would certainly not miss a large-scale impact.
13. Is it more favorable for our survival for a NEO to strike over land
That really depends on the location of impact. Generally speaking,
impact experts are much more worried about moderate to large ocean
impacts because the tsunami triggered would cause havoc around the
ocean's coast lines (many of which are densely populated).
14. Although the science is laughable in some situations, do you feel
movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact do some good in promoting this
Despite artistic and scientific criticism directed against both movies,
they have helped public understanding of the threat more than all our
efforts taken together. What is more, they have conveyed the most
important message, i.e. that humankind can actually intervene into the
course of nature and prevent a repetition of cosmic catastrophe. That's
Hollywood at its best! It goes without saying that the usual suspects,
i.e. the doom merchants and eternal pessimist hated both movies.
15. There are several independent groups that monitor the NEO threat
such as the Near Earth Network, and Interplanetary Protection Alliance
(IPPA). For small organizations like these to become more effective, do
you think more cooperation, and perhaps unification is the key?
There is already a great level of co-operation among the international
NEO communities, both on the professional and amateur level, that is
much better developed than for most other issues of global concern.
Despite many heated debates and controversies, there is a very positive
attitude towards everyone involved in this international effort. I guess
this positive approach is a reflection of the enormity of the challenge
16. An effort is underway to build a state-of-the-art 8-meter telescope
exclusively for NEO observations. Is this a realistic option, and what
would be the best option for funding such a large project?
As far as I know this is still a draft proposal.
17. In your opinion, should NASA be doing more to combat this threat?
What about the other space agencies throughout the world?
For the last 20 years or so, NASA and the U.S. have been doing most of
the work. That's why I am so appreciative of their efforts, regardless
of minor quibbles. I hope that the European Space Agency will soon start
to contribute in a significant way, without simply duplicating NASA's
18. What deflection strategy do you believe would be the best
approach to stopping a NEO?
Currently, the only realistic option we've got is the use of
nuclear devises for the deflection of an Earth-approaching object large
enough to pose a significant threat to civilization.
19. What's the largest size NEO that could hit the earth tomorrow, and
civilization would still be able to survive? What would conditions be
like after the impact?
Given that Homo sapiens has been around for 5 million years, it is clear
that we have survived quite a number of large-scale impacts during that
period. Life - and human life in particular - is much more resilient
than many think. Yet while we, as a species, would be able to survive
the impact of objects up to 2 or 3 km in diameter, it would be too
depressing to consider being bombed back into the Stone Age. There is
little consolation in this thought.
20. What can the average citizen do to help with the NEO search?
The average citizen can help best by becoming more interested and
involved in the whole issue of space exploration. By becoming more
scientifically literate, people can become directly involved, either by
making their own observations as an amateur astronomer, or by lobbying
their representatives on behalf of planetary protection.
21. Are you convinced that it was indeed an asteroid or comet that led
to the extinction of the dinosaurs. If so, do you think it was an
asteroid or comet?
The hard evidence for an impact (i.e. impact crater, iridium layer at
the K/T boundary) is so strong that this hypothesis is widely accepted.
22. Another hypothetical situation: We spot a NEO that is predicted to
come "too close for comfort" near Earth's orbit. Would you be in favor
of a mission to alter the NEO's orbit, or would you rely on predictions
that it will not hit Earth?
Given that these objects follow the laws of gravitation, we can make
extremely reliable calculations of their orbits. If we know that on
object will miss the Earth, it simply means: it will miss. There is no
need for intervention in any such case.
23. What is your opinion of the scientists rushing to release
information that asteroid 1997 XF11 was due to impact Earth?
1997 XF11 was the first major impact scare. While the scientific
information given to the public was accurate, the language used was
unfortunate. The NEO community has learned its lesson from this and some
other, very similar asteroid scares that were unnecessary. Ironically,
we have actually benefited quite significantly from the worldwide
publicity of these false alarms. But there is always the danger of a
backlash. That's why the NEO community is considering changes to the
procedures of announcing the discovery of potentially hazardous objects.
24. Do you feel NASA Administrator Dan Goldin has been a good ally for
the NEO search?
I'm not aware that Dan Goldin has been much involved regarding the NEO
25. Any last thoughts?
We have become aware that life and civilisation on this small planet is
vulnerable to cosmic dangers. The NEO community is at the forefront of a
new discussion about humankind's place in space. As a result of our
scientific development, for the first time in history we can provide
humankind with the realistic hope of protecting Earth and guarding life.
It is one of my main aims to turn the NEO threat into an issue for
raising the hope in technological progress and responsible intervention
into the course of nature.
(In Part 3 of this investigative report, we will take a closer look at
one of these independent NEO organizations, the Near Earth Network, and
their efforts to help combat the NEO threat.)
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