There are several major traumatic threats to all human life – as opposed to creeping threats such as pollution, over population, etc.
These include solar coronal mass ejections, shifts in the magnetic field (and hence loss of the shield protecting us from radiation), a nearby gamma ray burster star (deadly to us at a distance of many light years), massive volcanic eruptions (e.g. the Yellowstone Caldera), and comet, asteroid, or meteor (collectively Near Earth Objects or NEO’s) collision.
Among these life ending threats, only the last, a ground strike or massive air-burst by a large asteroid or other NEO, is one which we can by our own efforts prevent.
And the more we learn the more likely this is seen to be because even relatively small meteors can wreak havoc.
Therefore, no matter how likely or unlikely the various threats are, the only one the human race should be really concerned with is the NEO threat since that is the only one we can hope to prevent given today’s or near future technology.
Sizing Up The Threat
February, 2013. A death star streaks across the sky of central Russia and briefly brings the threat posed by NEO’s into sharp focus. This sort of thing always seems to come as a surprise to politicians and the public at large. Most people have little knowledge of history and less interest in science.
Aster is Greek for star and the more massive of these objects are nothing less than death stars because they could end life on Earth. We know this because they’ve done it before.
As late as the 1700’s farmers in France who reported rocks falling from the sky were ridiculed by “scientists”
of the day.
In 1908 a literally earth shaking event took place over the Tunguska river region of central Siberia.
The exact cause of the devastation is still debated but it nearly 800 sq. mi. of forest was flattened by the air burst of some object from space as small as 200 feet across.
If the 1908 event had centered above the Washington monument instead of a vast stretch of uninhabited tundra most of the District of Columbia would have been depopulated.
More recently The 2013 Chelyabinsk object exploded 80,000 feet above ground on February 15 but even at that distance the NEO damaged thousands of buildings and injured nearly a thousand people. At that height it destroyed itself near the flight ceiling of the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane (85,000 ft.) which once flew so high that no anti-aircraft missile was capable of reaching it. The Chelyabinsk object couldn’t have been hit by an interceptor missile even if one were able to intercept an object moving that fast.
But no matter, because no observatory spotted the object and it wasn’t in any of the NEO databases so we didn’t see it coming anyway.
Some estimate that object may only have been 20 ft. across. What would have happened to, say Moscow, or Washington, if the trajectory had been just slightly different. The power of the explosion is estimated to be equivalent to about one-half megaton of TNT. Remember, all the damage it caused was at a minimum distance of 90,000 ft. from the actual explosion.
There has always been an incredible amount of denial among politicians and even many scientists regarding meteor impacts. In living memory the Arizona meteor crater was authoritatively described by geologists to be the remnant of a volcano. Eugene Shoemaker, the geologist who first presented conclusive scientific data to bolster the impact explanation, was ignored or ridiculed by other scientists.
Only 60 years ago most scientists said the craters on the moon were also volcanic in origin.
By the way, if the name Shoemaker seems familiar, in one of those incredible historical coincidences he was also co-discoverer of the first celestial body observed to impact another planet – Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, along with his wife Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy.
When S-L9 struck Jupiter in July 1994 just a single one of the many pieces produced a fireball nearly 9,000 miles in diameter.
Just one part of one asteroid strike on Jupiter produced a fireball larger than the entire planet Earth.
Had it hit Earth, it would have wiped out most if not all life, a true ELE or Extinction Level Event – something any species only sees once and which leaves no written record.
And it doesn’t take a large meteor strike. What if even a small meteor triggered the Yellowstone Caldera? Or hit Saudi Arabia and destroyed the oil field?
In an exclusive interview with myself acting as Perihelion Science Fiction’s Science Editor, Russell L. Schweickart, Chairman Emeritus and co-founder of B612 Foundation provided some insight into how he got involved and what he and B612 see as possible solutions to the threat of NEO’s
If the name is familiar but you can’t quite place him, he is also known as Rusty Schweickart, a member of the third class of NASA astronauts, former Air Force fighter pilot, best known as the pilot of the lunar module on the Apollo 9 mission where he was also the person who first tested the space suits which were used by those who walked on the moon.
He spent more than 241 hours in space and over one hour in his EVA testing the “Portable Life Support System,” this was the first EVA of the Apollo missions and was a critical element in determining if we were technologically ready for a moon walk.
Russell wrote “No Frames, No Boundaries, Connecting with the whole planet – from space” a call for a reawakening the “North American Vision.”
After his tour at NASA was completed and he had spent some time as an adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown (Calif.), Mr. Schweickart co-founded the B612 Foundation which has as its lofty goal developing the capability of deflecting or destroying of any large body threatening to collide with the Earth.
Initially B612 was founded with the idea of developing a way to deal with any NEO threatening the Earth, not with identifying the most dangerous objects.
But faced with NASA’s failure, the Foundation’s new short term goal is to build and launch a satellite designed to detect all of those larger bodies which may impact the earth. But the foundation retains the eventual goal of building a defense against such threats.
You may be asking why, if this is so dangerous, is it left to a private foundation? Isn’t any good government’s primary function to protect its citizens? That’s what police and armies are for.
That is obviously true but government purse strings are controlled by politicians who have a primary goal of getting re-elected year after year.
As a result, in 2005 Congress voted to to extend the SpaceGuard project to include objects as small as 140 meters, but they failed to provide funding so NASA could actually work on the task.
By 2011 it became obvious that Washington wasn’t going to do much to protect us. NASA can’t conduct a massive unfunded research project. That meant no government agency was going to take the lead in identifying which near earth objects posed a threat.
In the face of realpolitik B612 shifted focus from developing a way to deflect NEO’s to detecting threatening NEO’s, giving birth to the $400+ million Sentinel satellite project now due to be launched in a few years.
This put a real strain on B612’s budget since it was founded expecting the goal of locating all threats to be a government task.
Because of the failure of governments to identify more than a tiny percentage of potential threats, the B612 Foundation’s current task was shifted to raising about $400 million to launch their Sentinel satellite, an infrared telescope satellite launched into a solar orbit at the approximate distance from the sun as the orbit of Venus.
Fortunately B612 isn’t alone in working to discover and track a million objects, besides small military and other government efforts, there are other private groups pursuing the same goal, such as the Osservatorio Astronomico Sormano. See below for an exclusive interview with one of their scientists. Locating all of the millions of objects large enough to pose a threat (100-ft in diameter can be dangerous) is such an enormous job that hundreds of scientists and probably thousands of amateur astronomers are needed and are contributing to the effort.
While there is a need for the Venus-orbit observatory being built by B612 there is also a need for high school science projects and local astronomy clubs which all can contribute to the effort.
This is an e-mail interview, that is, I compiled and sent Mr Schweickart these questions and he emailed back the answers.
What follows includes both the original session and a follow up.
John. Question: Was there some particular event which triggered your interest in NEOs and led you to co-found the B612 Foundation?
Schweickart: Not really … but everything has its roots. In October 2001 a group of us met knowing that more and more NEOs were being found and that it was only a matter of time before one was discovered with “our address on it.” But no one was doing anything about what do [about] them.
We … asked and answered two critical questions. First, can anything be done [about the threat to Earth and humanity from an asteroid strike] with current technology? [our answer was] Yes. Second, can we do anything to bring about such a capability? [We felt that we] gotta try. [So, in response, we] formed the B612 Foundation.
John. Q: Is B612 getting sufficient cooperation from NASA and the government?
Schweickart: Sufficient for what? This question requires much discussion. At one end of the spectrum the entire issue of planetary defense (PD) should be handled by government(s).
Security of the citizenry is (always has been) a, if not the, prime responsibility of government. At the other end of the spectrum is the realpolitik of the incompatibility between extremely infrequent, if devastating, challenges and the 2, 4, 8 year election cycle. (too many potholes in the roads now to consider issues likely to occur outside my term of office).
At the reductionist level, NASA is supporting B612/Sentinel per a negotiated Space Act Agreement (SAA) providing required deep space communications (with no payment), and (at the far end) NEO orbit determination and impact prediction (as they do currently) for the 100s of 1000s of new NEOs Sentinel will discover.
However, NASA, per se, is investing no money in [B612’s] Sentinel or any other discovery system adequate to meet the planetary defense early warning needs, and has done almost nothing at all [related to] validating or demonstrating deflection capability despite [more than] a decade of urging, cajoling, demanding, etc. by countless committees, task forces, and expert panels who have addressed PD.
John. Q: Is the Foundation working with other governments? (Buzz Aldrin specifically and many others outside government feel we should be cooperating with China and India.)
Schweickart: We [B612] are certainly open to this but there are substantial off-putting circumstances involved. ITAR being only one, but a very significant impediment.
John. Q: ITAR, the International Trade in Arms Regulations, in other words, arms control, involves U.S. laws regarding the exchange of vital technology with other, potentially hostile governments which makes the possibility of sharing it very complex. This despite the fact that we are using Russian space launch vehicles. What Rusty is referring to is not that B612 is banned from working with China but that the legal complexities and costs involved in determining if a specific technology is non-military makes cooperation impractical.
Schweickart: What the Foundation needs [to help launch] Sentinel is money. But while we are open to government financial support, domestic or international, most government financial support comes with control strings attached. Nor have any governments save the US (and that very limited) spent any serious money on NEO discovery. Europe (ESA) is best positioned and most cooperative, and informed. No others (China, India, Japan, Russia) have shown any real interest or willingness to even participate in meetings, let alone funding.
Our operating assumption is that we will need to raise the money for Sentinel via private donations … as is the case in most large civic projects of similar magnitude (e.g. a new hospital wing, a performing arts center, refurbishment/construction of a museum, etc.)
John. Q: Did you see increased interest in the Foundation after the recent Russian event (February, 2013 terminating over Chelyabinsk)?
Schweickart: Yes, but. This “interest” is not easy to convert into significant donations on the multi-million dollar scale. Incidental support via the website increased notably, but these are small in magnitude while nonetheless heartfelt and thoughtful.
John. Q: Being a science fiction magazine we always ask if you were influenced by the early writers and stories, especially those by Heinlein and Asimov?
Schweickart: Indeed I was, and still am. Read any good ones lately?? 😉
(Perihelion responded to this with, “Yes, we try to publish some every month.” GRIN)
John. Q: What do YOU see as the best bet for deflecting NEO’s? I see the gravity tractor idea as impractical unless mass is brought up from the moon or an asteroid is captured and equipped for that purpose perhaps after being mined. Both myself and our contributing editor feel placing an ion engine on the object is the only practical means of altering the orbit.
Schweickart: This requires much technical discussion to understand … it is not, despite the natural tendency think of it that way, a matter of either/or. No one who seriously understands the issue of asteroid deflection (and there are very few such individuals) believes or proposes the gravity tractor as a primary means of asteroid deflection. Yet everyone who understands the issues also understands that the gravity tractor is an essential component of every asteroid deflection. The “issue” at issue here is that there are two things to avoid; 1) the planet(!), and 2) associated keyholes (the planet, once removed). If you don’t understand gravitational keyholes, you don’t get this. And few do.
John. Note: (Mr. Schweickart is referring to the extreme complexity of calculating orbits where a large number of bodies are involved, including random bodies such as new comets and various stability patterns seen in orbital dynamics such as Lagrange points. Consider how long people worked on The Three Body Problem.)
John. Q: Again … at first order … deflection of asteroids requires two components; 1) a “robust” deflection capability (e.g. kinetic impact (KI) or nuclear explosion), combined with, 2) a “precise” albeit extremely modest deflection trim capability. The first enables an imprecise but sufficient planet avoidance but the second is necessary to also assure the avoidance of the gravitational keyholes nearby the planet. This is a fundamental, and non-intuitive physics issue … actually orbital mechanics issue (which most physicists are clueless on!)
John. Note: (See references below on gravitational/orbital keyholes – but essentially a “keyhole” is simply the window through which an object must pass to be on a collision course with the Earth (or some other target). If the NEO passes any place outside the “keyhole” which is a specific region of space and a specific time, the orbit will miss the planet. For example, the keyhole for the asteroid Apophis is about 400 meters (not kilometers) in width at a specific time in 2029. If the body passes through the keyhole we must try to deflect it, otherwise it will hit the earth April 13, 2036, Easter Sunday. The more lead time, the smaller the keyhole and hence the lesser amount of delta V which must be applied to move the body out of the collision course.)
Schweickart: By the way, placing an ion (more generally an electric) engine on a NEO is NOT a simple, or even good idea. Again, lots of reasons, but the most obvious are 1) the object is spinning or tumbling, and 2) NO ONE knows how to anchor to a “rubble pile,” which most NEOs probably are.
John. Q: What do you feel about leaving near earth exploration to private industry?
Schweickart: I think the more proper adjective is not “near earth” but “well understood.” We certainly understand getting to near earth space … and turning that over to private industry is an excellent idea … and we seem to be getting there. But there are certainly some big science issues (for example) which are more in the realm of the general public interest (think space weather research) where government investment is more appropriate. Deep space activity (i.e. solar orbit) is generally far more expensive and absent profit potential (at the moment anyway) and therefore more appropriate for government/taxpayer investment. However, something like the [B612] Sentinel IR telescope in a Venus-like solar orbit, is certainly well understood and hence not inappropriate for private initiative. Furthermore B612’s “bill” for designing, launching, and operating the Sentinel telescope is on the order of 50% of what the government would have to pay were it doing the job. The primary “fly in the ointment” here is that the Sentinel “product” is not being sold to NASA, or the public … it is being given freely to the world as a public safety service.
Hence we’re a non-profit corporation.
But again, elaboration on this is not inappropriate. E.g. ultimately, for some rather subtle reasons, deflecting an asteroid may well be most effective if performed by a private, for profit entity. Most appropriately after demonstration of the technology by the government(s). One would certainly be justified in arguing that this is “in the public interest!”
Lack of evidence to date notwithstanding!!
Russell L. (Rusty) Schweickart, Chairman Emeritus, B612 Foundation www.b612foundation.org
Follow up questions
John. Q: RE: Ion engine. If we have the technology to place one or more on a body we should be able to use several to control spin or tumble since that is what they are used for now. Of course the Delta-V both ways will be a problem if we have to send men to the object to work on the surface. ( NASA have landed the NEAR-Shoemaker probe on EROS more than a decade ago and it survived the landing well enough to continue transmitting.)
Schweickart: What you propose above is very complicated! Attaching a single propulsion system to an asteroid is a monumental robotic task … and we have NO CLUE re how to attach to an asteroid. Think dry powdered snow … NOT a consolidated soil or regolith [dust, soil, gravel, etc. overlying a solid ground] … these things are extremely porous and unconsolidated. Let alone [embedding] several! Furthermore it would be orders of magnitude more costly than to simply collide with the asteroid … i.e. kinetic impact. This is NOT likely to break up the asteroid, although that is not known as a certainty. Our [B612] policy and practice (re deflection) is very pragmatic; we are ONLY interested in what is available with current technology.
Lots of things may be available at some time in the future, but we consider only existing technology. This is public safety, not some future potential. Kinetic impact = run into it. Gravity tractor = station keep with it (no contact, no concern with attachment or spin rate or landing/docking site, etc.)
Both kinetic impact and gravity tractor work independent of whether the asteroid is a single consolidated body (only the smaller ones, those <~100 meters diameter, are thought to be consolidated bodies ... and even they have specific gravities ~2.0 - 3.0 ... therefore lots of pore space). John. Q: RE: rubble objects – wouldn’t they be the only ones appropriate for a nuclear device? Obviously you don’t want to just break up a solid one into two pieces so there is a greater chance of hitting a city.
Schweickart: [That’s] part of the complexity. We do not, generally, consider nuclear surface or sub-surface bursts. The favored flavor is a “stand-off nuclear explosion” at something like 1 asteroid radius, which instantaneously vaporizes the surface on that side (there is no blast effect … it’s all neutron heating) pushing the asteroid in the opposite direction. The point is you don’t slow down to rendezvous with it … you nuke it as you fly by on a close pass. More recently some of the nuke guys have been leaning toward the macho mode of blowing it up in the literal sense. Run directly into it with a slightly delayed explosion, i.e. fragment it on purpose. They don’t seem to realize that they will forever be responsible for a man-made annual meteor shower comprised of asteroid fragments of uncertain size for-essentially-ever. The standoff technique would (they say) work rubble pile or no.
Our (B612) general take on use of nukes is DON’T DO IT unless there is no alternative. Nukes should only be used as a last resort. This is also the yet-to-be-formalized position of the UN/COPUOS as well. No one, especially non-US nations, want to see nukes used in space … FOR ANYTHING. Especially if it’s the US doing the using. And (again, very complex issue) international trust, public trust, in the process is very critical. Using nukes flies directly in the face of this necessity. BUT … if it finally comes down to it … nukes vs. take the hit … who knows?
The following comments are from Eric M. Jones, Perihelion Contributing Editor (NOT the Eric M. Jones of the Apollo Surface Journal, etc. Since Eric has long been associated with the space program in a private capacity (he supplies parts to the ISS, the two are sometimes confused.)
John. Q: Is an ion engine a good possibility?
Eric: Planting an ion engine on an asteroid is not an ultimate answer, but I propose it as 100X more doable than any gravity tractor. People seem to forget you need to get the mass to the asteroid. The GT seems simple but will be shown to be ineffectual. We can say that the GT can work over decades or centuries. But human programs aren’t likely over very long time spans. If you could move a large mass to the asteroid, instead of using braking rockets, your best chance is just to smack into it.
Current problems regarding landing on or moving an asteroid seem to be concentrated in two areas:
They can vary from stellar core to a ball of loose dirty snow.
Second-Close orbital mechanics.
a) Although cometary out gassing presents special problems, no matter how strange a rock spinning in space may look, it always has a spin axis with simple rotation (I can devise a spinning rock that can’t be landed on, but I don’t believe they actually exist). Landing on an axis [pole] is presumed simple.
b) Targeting a feature and landing on it is a matter that many missiles and bombs have [shown to be] solved. This is not complicated.
Third – The nuke problem.
I am not one who believes nuking an asteroid could be detrimental to Earthlings. But this needs more sober study.
John. Q: What do you think about having multiple ion engine-carrying robots waiting, in case they are needed?
Eric: I agree that planting ion thrusters is one of the better ideas. I would like to add my own recipe.
Okay, here’s the bet: Sometime in the next decade, a really big rock will be seen to be a hazard. We will then wish we’d had the foresight to already have a spacecraft in Mars or Venus Lagrangian orbit to send ion engine “darts” to steer the rock out of the way. It might also have an optional nuke in its quiver. As a last resort, the spacecraft can be used as an impactor.
While waiting for this task, the orbiting spacecraft could be put to good use mapping and measuring star systems, exoplanet hunting, communications, and asteroid mapping and searching. etc.
So the bet is that it is worth putting numbers of spacecraft in distant orbit just to take advantage of the orbital position and readiness, if and when the need occurs. This type of “insurance mission” needs discussion.
Bibliography for interview section
The story behind founding B612
“Threat Characterization: Trajectory Dynamics,”
Russell Schweickart (B612 Foundation), Clark Chapman, Dan Durda, Bill Bottke, David Nesvorny (Southwest Research Institute), Piet Hut (Institute for Advanced Studies) Available as a free PDF from the Cornell Library archives.
“Decision program on asteroid threat mitigation,” Russell L. Schweickart.http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576509002161
“Preliminary Design of a Crewed Mission to Asteroid Apophis in 2029-2036” S Wagner, B Wie – AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Specialist Conference, 2010 http://arc.aiaa.org/doi/pdf/10.2514/6.2010-8374
Perihelion’s Exclusive Interview With Italian Researcher
Sormano is a privately funded observatory 40 km north of Milan at about 1,000 m altitude. The main instrument is a f:6.5 Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph with 20-inch primary with a 6-inch guide scope, the sort of telescope which is within the reach of a serious amateur astronomer, showing that real, critical observational astronomy can still be done in a backyard.
The Sormano Observatory is at the forefront of those moderate sized private efforts adding to our knowledge of NEOs, in particular they have developed orbital software and are heavily involved in projecting the paths of objects which is so critical to determining if a newly observed object is actually new, or just the reappearance of a previously known object.
The interview is with one of the researchers responsible for calculating orbits.
John. Introduction: Francesco Manca thank you for your time, I know your work is an important contribution. I only have a few simple questions. If you need clarification just ask, I am getting technical information from your web site.
John. Q: You appear to have four major activities. First, educating the public, second, discovering NEOs and third, assisting in development of orbital analysis software and finally orbital analysis of any objects. Is this correct and do you place special emphasis on any one of those?
Francesco: Mr. McCormick, our first activity (the astronomical activity started in 1989 observing (4179) [total objects] is the Near Earth Objects follow up [confirmation of already discovered objects.]
Secondly we work to discover new minor planets from Sormano, calculate orbits and [help with the] identification of each object.
Finally [we work to] educate the public.
John. Q: I see that about 100 numbered and about 30 unnumbered NEO discoveries have been credited to Sormano. Were they all found using the 20-inch scope? [a serious amature can build an observatory with a 20-inch telescope so this field is open to individuals and NASA along with the Harvard Astrophysical Observatory, acknowledge the need for amateur involvement.
Francesco: Yes, all minor planets showed in our scientific activity available in our web site
http://www.brera.mi.astro.it/sormano were discovered from Sormano using the old 20 inch telescope but it was replaced to improve performance and obtain better images of comets and deep space objects.
John. Q: Many objects are discovered, then lost, and discovered again. Obtaining accurate orbits is critical to maintaining an accurate database and I see an F. Manca is responsible for many of the computations identifying objects, is this you and did you use the OrbFit software?
Francesco: [A major project here involves orbital calculation] we use custom software developed at Sormano by Augusto Testa. He is also responsible for updating our internal database. Starting from this accurate database (we have all observations and orbits published by the Minor Planet Center) we use this one to compute new accurate orbits in order to maintain priority lists of objects to be monitored in the future for their MOID and close encounters.
Our staff and observatory focuses on many years of follow up activity of NEA orbit computations [to identify them and] to calculate the close approaches with the Earth and internal planets [inside Mars orbit].
In addition I (Francesco Manca) also use ORBFIT software to calculate the non-linear error in reference to the close approaches of dangerous asteroids or to check close encounters just to try to find these objects on old plates [astronomical photographs] and improve [the accuracy of] their orbits.
[Observatory staff] F. Manca, P. Sicoli and A. Testa are also those responsible to compute orbits [necessary for] identification of minor planets and comets published by the Minor Planet Center.
[Our] PC Software was developed internally by us but we collaborate also with many institutes in Italy and abroad [notably] the Minor Planet Center, Brera Observatory, in Milan and the Neodys staff or others observatories in USA as CSS Catalina and around Europe.
John. Q: Do your computations include the determination of so-called gravitational keyholes?
Francesco: The so-called keyholes are not reported by us because [they are a critical calculation] and [not an] easy computation as for example for the case of the PHA asteroid (99942) Apophis where this object passed a keyhole in 2013. [Keyholes are] very important to understand future close approaches with the Earth.
John. Q: Do you rely entirely on private funding?
Francesco: We have entirely ( not so much 😉 )private funding.
[E-mail humor across languages can be difficult to recognize.
What Francesco was saying with humor was that they rely on private funding and need more.]
IN OTHER WORDS, UNLESS YOU HAVE A VACATION HOME ON MARS, YOU MAY NEED THE EARTH, DO YOUR PART TO HELP SAVE THE EARTH. Write your congressperson, find a foundation you can support, share this story with friends on Facebook!
This interview was conducted in January, 2014 by Perihelion with Francesco Manca, Sormano Astronomical Observatory (MPC code 587) Localita’ Colma del Piano, Sormano,Italy
These interviews published here with permission from Perihelion Science Fiction.
For an additional article on this subject, see A Real Death Star, in the February issue of Perihelionsf.com, a free monthly online science fiction magazine in the pulp tradition, including one or two science fact articles each issue.