Defending Earth from Killer Asteroids

On January 14, 2014, the Commonwealth Club of California put on a presentation about how we can deal with killer asteroids.

The featured speaker was Edwin Lu, a former NASA astronaut, who is now running the private “B612 Foundation”, which plans to launch a satellite to track asteroids and identify those which might hit the Earth.

Ed got the asteroid tracking idea while watching the Moon from aboard the Space Station. The number of craters is impressive. If that many objects have hit the Moon, many more must have hit the Earth, with its stronger gravity.

Earth has fewer visible craters because in-falling matter usually burns up in our atmosphere (the Moon is airless), and because much of our surface is oceanic water.

The impact of any asteroid bigger than about a half-mile across would have a world-wide impact. Something that size altered Earth’s climate 65 million years ago, an event that may have killed off the dinosaurs.

Much smaller objects could wipe out a city. The 1908 impact in Tunguska, Siberia, could have wiped out the city of Saint Petersburg.

The point is that we are being hit by asteroids quite frequently. Why have we not suffered damage? Simply luck. There are so few of the big ones out there.

So the B612 Foundation is building the “SENTINEL” satellite. The idea is to identify potentially impacting objects which have at least enough mass to destroy a city. Having identified such an object, the foundation would use its contacts to organize a space mission to alter the asteroid’s orbit so that Earth is spared.

Is this a quixotic, money-wasting project? Not at all; it’s quite doable.

Most asteroids are very dark objects; at Earth’s distance from the Sun, they are warmed and can be detected by their emission in the infra-red. This technology is well developed.

It turns out that diverting a dangerous asteroid is well within our present capabilities. It has been done. NASA's Deep Impact mission rammed a spacecraft into a comet nucleus (which is in the size range of many asteroids). The energy of that impact was more than enough to bend any asteroid orbit away from impact with Earth. Ed Lu said that an orbit alteration of about “the speed of an ant walking” is enough to divert a distant approaching asteroid, if the force is applied in the correct way.

The difficult part is identifying a dangerous asteroid with enough lead time to prepare the diversion mission. NASA does now detect asteroids which will pass close to earth. NASA predicted that an object would pass between the Earth and the Moon in early 2013. It did, but everyone got surprised when, in February 2013, just before the arrival of the predicted object, an un-predicted asteroid exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia.

Ed said that, soon after that event, he was one of the people called to testify before a Congressional committee to explain the danger from impacting asteroids.

He asked his Commonwealth Club audience whether any of them thought that it is rare for an asteroid to strike Earth. A few tentative hands went up. Probably most of the rest didn’t know.

He showed a list of impacts in recent years. There were more than 20 in 2012, in various places around the planet. None did any damage, either because they burned up in the atmosphere, or because the impact was in an ocean.

During the question period, one person remarked that one impact was listed as being over California in October 2012. Ed said that he remembered that event. Nothing made it to the ground, probably, but it produced several sonic booms.

Ed said we definitely need to detect more approaching asteroids. The 1000 or so a year that NASA picks up now is not enough. So why aren’t NASA and ESA working with Russia, China and anyone else with a space program, to build this satellite? Doesn’t protecting our planet have any political appeal?

Ed explained that governments are good at dealing with clear and present threats, those with a definite time scale and damage level, but governments find it politically difficult to provide funding for threats that, while real, are not immediate, not clearly defined.

It is definitely possible to get the money for this project from the private sector.

In 2012, Ed was at the Google offices, giving a “Tech Talk” about his work in asteroid deflection research.

Ed spoke about the exciting developments in their research— namely, the recent realization of real deflection strategies.

To his frustration, however, these strategies were relatively useless—and not because of their technological shortcomings. You can’t deflect what you can’t see, and nobody had built a telescope that could find these asteroids.

After the presentation concluded, a man walked up to Ed and asked him a simple question: “Why don’t you do it?”

Ed was taken off guard. But the answer seemed obvious: it would be incredibly expensive.

The man proceeded to share that he had recently donated a large sum of money to a prestigious museum that was raising over 450 million dollars to build a new wing. So far, the campaign had been a huge success. He then said, “You’re telling me that the people of San Francisco can come together and donate that much money for a building, and we can’t gather enough money to save the world?”

Ed realized the man was right. Why wait for NASA or any other international space agency to put aside the budget for such a project? Why not take the initiative?

So Ed Lu became convinced that a private foundation is the only way to provide meaningful protection from asteroid impacts. He used his NASA contacts to bring together a small group of top experts in spacecraft design to work on SENTINEL. The B612 Foundation is getting funding from private wealthy individuals. He said the Foundation team is 20% into the design, and is looking toward a launch in 2018.

After SENTINEL is operational, we will have a good chance of detecting a Tunguska-sized asteroid and diverting its path before it makes a crater out of one of our cities. We might even be able to prevent our human race from going the way of the dinosaurs. Sounds like a good bet? Donations from anyone are very welcome.

For more details, the website for the B612 Foundation is

Go back to Steve Geller's Home Page.

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