Asteroid defense strategies should be taken seriously, receive funding

By Lauren Kelly

An expert panel announced on Jan. 22 that due to lack of government funding, NASA will miss its congressional deadline to track and survey near-Earth asteroids by 2020. According to the National Research Council Report, “Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies,” there is not enough time to map all of these objects in the sky by the specified deadline.

This news illustrates an ongoing debate in the astronomical community and the world of U.S. policymakers about whether to fund research to detect asteroids and ways to prevent them from hitting Earth. It costs billions of dollars to fund efforts to find these objects, let alone take action to avoid a collision. Currently, the government spends approximately $4 million annually to detect asteroids. But even if research to deflect an asteroid was well-funded, there is no guarantee it would work.

I think the U.S. government should consider more funding for NASA’s efforts to identify asteroids in Earth’s neighborhood and find ways to avoid being hit. An asteroid impact is one of the few natural disasters we can predict, and possibly prevent. Funding high-powered space telescopes and experiments to test models of an intervening space mission may be the difference between life and death on Earth.

The truth is, asteroids have hit Earth before and others will hit in the future. It is a commonly accepted theory that a large asteroid hit our planet 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and extinguishing most life. Each year, Earth is hit by many small asteroids, known as shooting stars or meteorites, and it’s not unlikely that another large object will hit our planet and cause mass extinction.

In fact, in 2004, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory spotted a 1,000-foot-wide object that is expected to pass between Earth and the moon in 2029. This is extremely close by astronomical standards. Known as Apophis, the object is probably the best example of what is truly at stake regarding the science and technologies involved in asteroid hunting.

So what would happen if scientists found that an object was on a collision course with Earth during our lifetime? Although we obviously have the power and resources to detect many near-Earth asteroids, it has not been experimentally shown as to whether or not we can deal with the situation effectively. More testing is needed and should be done to know if we could protect our planet from an impact.

Much of the public thinks that if we were to find an imminent threat to our planetary defenses, we could just send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to space and blow it up with nuclear bombs. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Blowing up an asteroid is messy, even if you’re an oil rigger action superstar. Besides, with all of the debris that would litter our skies, there’s no guarantee it would work. There is a lot of room for error. Nuclear bombs wouldn’t vaporize the entire object, they would just divert its path.

NASA researchers came up with a few other ideas to deal with an asteroid. One promising idea is to create a gravitational tractor. This would involve having a spaceship fly just ahead of the rock and, through the force of gravity, slow it down so it would pass Earth’s orbit after our planet had moved forward in rotation around the sun.

Although asteroid impacts can seem like science fiction or the subject for blockbuster Hollywood movies, the threat is very real. If we have the technology and resources to intervene and prevent mass extinction, we should use it. Investing in this research is the ultimate investment in our future.