Why is it America’s job to save the world from asteroids?
Writing for Nature, Eugenie Samuel Reich discusses a little-noted, but impending deadline: Owing to a 2008 law passed by Congress, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has until 15 October to decide which agency will be responsible for protecting the planet from an asteroid strike. Members of the task force say NASA ...
Writing for Nature, Eugenie Samuel Reich discusses a little-noted, but impending deadline:
Writing for Nature,
Owing to a 2008 law passed by Congress, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has until 15 October to decide which agency will be responsible for protecting the planet from an asteroid strike. Members of the task force say NASA expects to be given part or all of that responsibility. To meet it, the panel discussed the creation of a Planetary Protection Coordination Office (PPCO) within NASA, with an annual budget of $250 million–$300 million. It would detect and track asteroids — and develop a capability to deflect them. “You want to use a proven capability when you’re talking about an actual threat,” says Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut and the other panel co-chair.
The PPCO would also challenge other countries to fund defence against asteroids, perhaps through the United Nations. Canada already plans to launch the NEO [near-earth objects] Survey Satellite in 2011, and Germany’s AsteroidFinder is slated for launch in 2012, but neither is expected to come close to the NEO-logging goal by 2020.
The U.S. currently spends about $5.5 million per year to track NEO’s and less than a million on researching ways to counter them, but is falling far short of asteroid-detection goals. Some might say that’s already too much, given the more terrestrial problems the U.S. faces. On the other hand, the United States spends more than $1 billion — the amount NASA says it needs to meet its goal of detecting all potentially dangerous objects by 2020 — on far less lofty goals than saving humanity from the fate of the dinosaurs. Even an asteroid just one kilometer in diameter would be enough to cause worldwide crop failures and a shift in the earth’s climate. One just a few meters wide could wipe out a major city.
But why, in this supposedly post-American world, is the United States expected to take the lead on this? Unlike, say, missile defense, asteroid detection and deterrence benefits all countries — if NASA does detect a potentially dangerous asteroid, chances are it’s probably going to hit somewhere else. And unlike global warming, smaller developing countries can’t say that the United States should accept more of the blame for asteroids. (Though Hugo Chavez could certainly try.)
Scientists have been urging the United Nations to coordinate international asteroid detection efforts for years. But despite coordinating work by the the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs (yes, there is one), progress seems to be slow-going.
There are some promising signs of other powers starting to take the lead. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference on international asteroid tracing earlier this year. Russia’s space agency has also proposed a joint asteroid monitoring project with the European Union.
The good news is we probably have some time. An object big enough to wipe out a sizeable portion of the earth’s population only hits about twice every million years. But the international community’s recording in coordinating the international response to much more immediate dangers like global warming its not encouraging for those who would prefer not to rely on Bruce Willis or Morgan Freeman when the big one comes some day.
Joshua Keating is a former associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating
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