The Surveillance State Is Looking in the Wrong Direction: The Asteroid Threat

Illustration by James Thew

The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was as wide as San Francisco and taller than Mount Everest. It slashed through the atmosphere 150 times faster than the average passenger jet, hitting the Yucatan Peninsula with a force 2 million times more powerful than the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.

Humanity has watched similar-sized asteroids and comets pass harmlessly by for millennia. It's only in the last 50 years or so that we've had missiles and spaceships to help prevent a city-size rock from taking out, say, Paris.

And yet we’re somehow no better prepared than the dinosaurs were. Last year, a mere 7,000-ton rock burned up over Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains and created shock waves that damaged 7,200 buildings and put 1400 people in the hospital. No one saw it coming.

We live in an age of surveillance. Early-warning systems are supposed to detect nuclear weapons launches from anywhere on the planet. Drivers can see traffic jams on smart phones, thanks to satellites. How could every government on Earth be so blind to a potentially catastrophic mixture of iron and chondrite traveling at 43,000 mph?

In the U.S. the answer comes down to funding. In 2005, Congress passed a NASA Authorization Act that, among other things, tasked the organization with finding and charting 90 percent of the Near Earth Objects (NEOs) 140 meters in diameter or greater. The bill gave NASA 15 years to complete the study, and budgeted exactly $0 extra to do it. NASA's existing NEO-search budget is $4 million annually, which helps to fund existing observatories that aren’t exclusively devoted to NEO discovery.

Three years after the mandate, NASA reported, to no one's surprise, that without money allocated to the program, it would be unable to meet their goals by the 2020 deadline.

The National Research Council in 2010 released a report, called Defending Planet Earth: Near Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies. It came to a similar conclusion. The current budget, the report says, is "insufficient in detecting the majority of NEOs that may present a tangible threat to humanity." Since then, funding has increased by exactly $0.

It gets worse: Thirteen percent of the objects we do know about might be on a collision course with Earth. To date, NASA has discovered precisely 11,230 NEOs, 820 of which have a diameter larger than 1 kilometer. And out of that total number, they've classified 1,492 of these NEOs as "potentially hazardous."

To twist the knife a little further, there are still potentially millions of asteroids smaller than 140 meters in diameter that would go undetected. Last year's Chelyabinsk meteor had a diameter of only 20 meters.

Public institutions, private universities and private foundations have picked up where Congress' funding has left off. In his new book The Asteroid Threat: defending our planet from deadly near- earth objects, (June 2014) William E. Burrows, a professor emeritus at New York University and a member of the 2010 National Research Council panel, provides an overview of various programs in place like the non-profit Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, which has observed more than 5 million asteroids, 289 of which were classified as NEOs. There’s also a private foundation in Menlo Park, CA called B612 -- named after the asteroid on which Antoine de Saint Exupery's Little Prince made his home. It has developed a program called Sentinel, which is raising $450 million to send an infrared space telescope past Venus to catalog NEOs and serve as an early warning system.

But these and NASA’s efforts barely scratch the tip of the asteroid. Until Congress and other governments get their act together, life on planet earth will remain blind to the not-so-friendly skies.

Also by James Tarmy (@jstarmy on Twitter):

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