Francesca Bessey graduated from the University of Southern California in 2015 with a B.A. in International Relations. She is currently completing her Master’s in Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where her research focuses on translational justice and violence prevention during humanitarian crisis.
“If we get hit 20 years from now, that’s not bad luck. That’s stupidity.” 1
— Ed Lu,
Association of Space Explorers
The phrase “natural disaster” most often conjures up images of the most brutal earthquakes, tsunamis, and tropical storms of our day. We all know the names: Katrina, Fukushima, Haiyan; yet, few of us know of the upcoming United Nations vote that could determine the world’s readiness for a catastrophe that makes the latest super typhoon seem like child’s play in comparison. At the long-time urging of the Association of Space Explorers and the B612 Foundation, the UN General Assembly may adopt a plan to involve the world’s space agencies in an international effort to defend against one of humanity’s strangest, yet most devastating threats: near-Earth objects (NEOs), otherwise known as asteroids. The plan allots for the creation of an International Asteroid Warning Network, to allow countries to share and pool information about asteroids, as well as an international task force, comprised of scientists from different national space agencies, for the development of strategies to search for, identify and—if necessary—deflect potentially hazardous NEOs.2
The General Assembly plan represents a long overdue acknowledgement of two critical realities about our planet’s relationship with asteroids. The first is simply the extent of the threat these space objects pose. We cannot forget that Earth is bombarded with space debris every single day; that a flying hunk of rock and metal entering the atmosphere at cosmic speed can impact with a force several hundred times that of an atomic bomb; that an asteroid 12 km. in diameter caused the extinction of the dinosaurs or that the 45 m. asteroid that impacted in Siberia in 1908 (the “Tunguska Event”) would have been enough to level New York City.3 The second, more cheering, reality is that these devastating events—with advance warning and a little luck— are completely preventable. Prevention, however, brings with it its own set of complications and challenges, not the least of which is determining from amongst a plethora of independent political entities a responsible party for managing a disaster that could theoretically threaten anyone, anywhere on Earth. This particular objective is, of course, unattainable. No single government or space agency has the capability—or, quite frankly, the acute lack of self- interest—necessary to make appropriate decisions regarding a threat that knows nothing of national borders. This global menace calls unequivocally for a global response, both for the enormous challenge it poses and the complex international dynamics involved in the management of these threats itself.
With the exception of the European Union, international collaboration on space research has been historically rare; the field has in fact been dictated by a legacy of sometimes-hostile competition, rooted in the Cold War-era Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. During this time, space was far from being considered a shared, international space; it was a territory to be conquered in the interest of scientific superiority and the U.S. and Soviet Union were more than willing to do the same work twice rather than collaborate and risk sharing technological secrets. For all its inefficiency, this model seems to have motivated space exploration the best! The United States has seen an astronomic decrease in the financial and cultural prioritization of space research since the 1960s, a trend that continued even more decisively following the end of the Cold War. At its peak in 1966, NASA accounted for over 4% of federal government spending; today it is less than 0.05%.4 As a frustrated biology professor expressed in a 2007 Science article, “It seems that only when faced with the threat of looking stupid or coming in second place does our government open its wallet to science.”5 Space exploration today, while less tense, continues to be dictated by a model of national (or regional, in the case of the European Space Agency) political entities creating their own agencies and mounting their own missions. If we were to push this even further in the international direction, as a proper asteroid defense would require, would space research become even less incentivized? We should perhaps look to the best model for international cooperation in space that we have: the International Space Station.
As put forth on its website, the International Space Station (ISS) is “the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken.”6 In this way, we should celebrate the ISS for despite all of its political complexity, it continues to be an incredible scientific success. We can imagine the space station as a precariously balanced and delicate instrument, held up by just a few strings. Each of those strings represents one of the different national space agencies responsible for some part of the ISS and its daily functionality, including NASA, the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). As stated on the website, “Each partner has the primary responsibility to manage and run the hardware it provides.”7 While disaster does not necessarily ensue each time one of these agencies does not hold up its end of the international agreement, there is little room for error when billions of dollars of research and human lives are at stake. We cannot underestimate the level of trust—perhaps not among governments, but among individual space agencies—required to maintain a project where a member state’s incredibly precious data and personnel are often largely in the hands of other political entities. Such an arrangement would never have been possible during the first several decades of space exploration.
A coordinated international response to the asteroid threat, however, demands far more collaboration between governments than we have seen—collaboration truly unprecedented in the history of diplomacy, let alone space research. By comparison, the space station has it easy; every nation implicated in the activities of the ISS works directly on the ISS without the threat of impending natural disaster breathing down their necks. An asteroid impact, on the other hand, is of automatic concern to every nation on the planet—even, and in fact especially, those (that is, majority of the world) who do not even have a space program and would be utterly helpless in defending their own citizens from an asteroid on their own.
Today, the majority of the world’s work on the NEO threat comes from private organizations and NASA. Using telescope technology, NASA has already identified more than 90% of the NEOs with a diameter of 1 km. or more—asteroids of a size generally considered enough to threaten the existence of humanity in the case of impact. Recognizing the threat that smaller asteroids could pose on a local or regional level, Congress charged NASA with expanding their survey to include at least 90% of all NEOs greater than 140 m. across, in 2005.8 A private organization known as the B612 Foundation, meanwhile, is developing technology and seeking public support to ensure this 140 m. goal becomes a reality. According to their website, B612 hopes to conduct a space-based survey mission, called Sentinel, to identify smaller NEOs (including those less than 140 m. in diameter, as they still pose a significant threat) by launching an infrared telescope into a Venus-like orbit around the sun.9 These asteroid-mapping efforts will become the cornerstone of identifying, and therefore defending against, an asteroid threat. However, they could use some bolstering; asteroids will not wait for our tracking methods to catch up with them. By acknowledging the enormous and very real threat posed by an asteroid impact, the recent General Assembly plan will hopefully inspire an international consciousness that helps drive more space agencies and private groups to work independently on this issue, even if the plan itself does not work—a possibility we must, however begrudgingly, acknowledge. In this era, where territorial sovereignty continues to be the defining principal of the international system and where we have, more than once, allowed a genocide to continue for fear of violating this norm, it is difficult to imagine creating an international body to make decisions about a disaster which, upon arrival, will strike in an area under the specific jurisdiction of one nation or entity.10 It is even more difficult to imagine vesting that body with a final authority—an authority that must make decisions quickly, in the event of an emergency—that the international community will respect. However, the responsibility to mitigate an asteroid threat will ultimately fall on those who have the finances and technology necessary to mount a deflection mission. If these resources and technology are concentrated in the hands of an international team of scientists, well in advance of an impact event, that team will retain the power, by default, to take action on an approaching NEO and avert a disaster in spite of the politics.
An “Inherently International” Model for Asteroid Deflection
In order to explore the international nature of the deflection process, it is first necessary to understand the trajectory of an incoming asteroid and the ways in which proposed deflection methods would alter this trajectory to avert impact. For any given asteroid projected to strike Earth, scientists identify an impact risk corridor—a narrow band stretching across the Earth, which encompasses all potential impact points of the object. According to a proposal prepared by the B612 Foundation, the risk corridor for an asteroid will only be a few tens of kilometers across, but will extend more than 180° over the Earth’s surface. When a NEO impacts in the ocean, the corridor becomes much wider to account for risks associated with resultant tsunamis.11
The current model for asteroid deflection, championed by B612 and the Association of Space Explorers, calls for a low-thrust device to apply a consistent force to a NEO over the course of several years, so that it moves longitudinally along this risk corridor until the point of “lift-off,” at which point the object becomes tangential to Earth’s surface and continues its trajectory past the planet. Scientists call the initial impact point the “act of God” point—the place where the asteroid will land should no human choose to intervene.12 However, as B612 Foundation Chairman Russell L. Schweickart points out, a deflection mission will gradually shift this impact point from one region to another, and thus “necessarily shift risk, however temporarily, between people and property across the planet.” Responsibility ceases to fall upon “God,” or nature, and instead rests with the agency responsible for the deflection. Therefore, to undertake the deflection of an asteroid from its original path without the international community’s blessing risks assuming responsibility for perhaps the most catastrophic natural disaster of all time—if the mission fails—the consequences of which would be devastating for even the most powerful of countries. Furthermore, we as an international community should no more entrust the fate of an object with the potential to kill millions of people to a single political entity any more than we would all the nuclear weapons in the world. Only a truly international cohort of experts and policy-makers, charged with the protection of humanity over a particular national or regional group, could be expected to make appropriate decisions about asteroid deflection. A system of shared responsibility like this would also ensure that no one nation or agency could take credit or blame for a successful or failed deflection mission, reducing the likelihood of disputes, retaliation, and marginalization of particular nations or interests.
Managing Last-Minute Disaster (And Why It’s Unattractive)
In less time or with fewer resources, a redirection mission could theoretically provide an alternative to a full deflection mission. Rather than a thrust applied over the course of a decade to force the NEO entirely away from Earth, thrust could be applied for a shorter period of time in order to move the asteroid along the risk corridor to a less devastating impact point, such as the middle of a desert. However, redirecting an NEO to a different impact site—or allowing a meteor to strike in an area deemed remote enough not to pose any serious threat to humanity— raises far more difficult questions than the deflection mission does. What constitutes a location “remote” enough to comfortably withstand a hurtling space object with the capacity to bring down over 700 square miles of forest? Government test sites for nuclear explosions raise enough controversy; what about the placement of an impact that delivers hundreds of times as much force? Who would even make such a decision? The most powerful body within the United Nations today, the UN Security Council comprises of many of the most wealthy, influential and militarily formidable states on the planet. But to allow such states, which routinely and systematically benefit from the economic and political weakness of the rest of the world, to determine, for example, whether a weaker state is worth saving—particularly when the menacing space object happens to be headed for one of their major metropolitan areas—puts the world’s poorest and least powerful populations at risk of sacrifice for the assumed greater good of the developed world.
Furthermore, if we permit an asteroid to enter our atmosphere, there is no guarantee that it will reach its projected “act of God” point. First of all, the projection is, and can only ever be, a projection: gravitational pull during near-Earth approaches contribute to slight alterations in the orbit of the NEO, so that a more precise trajectory could only ever be known after it is too late to start a low-thrust deflection mission.13 Additionally, NEOs are always vulnerable to collisions with other space objects that might put it off course.14 Assuming the asteroid stays true to its original trajectory, the abrasive descent through Earth’s atmosphere might still cause it to explode before it ever hits the ground, potentially exposing populations along the risk corridor to shockwaves, sunburn, and falling debris. Experts agree that the meteor that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15th 2013 was less than 20 meters in diameter, but the shockwave from its explosion a full 20 miles above Earth’s surface cut off electricity and cell- phone connectivity, caused over 1,200 injuries—mostly due to flying glass—and showered the Earth with several tons’ worth of debris.15 States attempting to direct asteroids to impact in a different location, with the best or worst intentions, might find their plans backfire, putting an even more populous or strategically valuable areas in harm’s way or prompting military retaliation from a neighbor who takes a hit.
Not a single NEOphile will tell you otherwise: the best defense against asteroids involves an early warning system. Last-minute fixes to avoid an asteroid impact, such as the shortened deflection mission proposed here, or the even sloppier alternative of blasting it with a nuclear weapon, carry greater risk of international tension and inevitably require a violent impact, which will almost certainly put something, if not someone, in harm’s way. However, just as a defense method with an early warning system is most compatible with international cooperation, so must this cooperation be nurtured in order to ensure the system’s functionality.
Mapping potentially hazardous NEOs is a herculean task that neither NASA, nor a wealthy private foundation, has yet been able to achieve. A more involved international effort would not only speed up the process but also awaken participating agencies and persons to the reality of the asteroid threat, increasing global conscientious, and thus response efforts, regarding hazardous NEOs overall.
The Wildcard: Asteroid Resource Competition
Though the protection of Earth remains scientists’ primary focus concerning NEOs, asteroids do not merely represent a threat; in fact, they also present an incredibly rich source of mineral resources, particularly those that are rare or depleting on Earth. 1994 estimates put the value of a single metal asteroid one km. in diameter at $1 trillion in iron, nickel, cobalt and platinum metal reserves; today, we might as well say that the wealth of space is unfathomable. Such extra-planetary mining would relieve strain on Earth’s finite supply of natural resources and potentially reverse some of the negative environmental, economic, and health effects that have resulted from the increasingly desperate processing of lower-grade ores and fuels. The surplus would also reduce the incidence of resource competition between states, which research shows is a frequent motivator for violent conflict.16 Meanwhile, in an article titled “Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System,” Valerie A. Olson raises the possibility of asteroids acting as hydrogen and oxygen refueling depots for spacecraft on long missions, a resource that could make deep space exploration—particularly human missions—a much more viable option for space research. According to Olson, supporters of NEO research and exploration see these objects as “logical ‘stepping stones’ for a species that will eventually need more than earth offers.”17 In this sense, NEOs do a complete 180 in terms of what they represent to humankind: what was once a formidable natural weapon of mass destruction, is now also a key to our species’ survival should we drain the resources on our own planet.
Interestingly enough, the mineral richness of NEOs provides an incentive for public- private cooperation in deflection missions that, while complicating the players in the international deflection discussion, could more solidly ensure the deflection mission takes place. With the advent of privately-funded space missions on the horizon, it is not inconceivable that private individuals will soon be able to mount the capital to operate or assist in an asteroid mapping project or deflection mission. After all, the most active body in advocating for and developing strategies against NEO impacts, the B612 Foundation, is itself private, and while its motives are slightly less capitalist in nature, their search-and-deflection campaign provides a model for private investors who hope to avert future NEO impacts in the interest of preserving the intact forms of these objects for extra-planetary resource extraction. As asteroid resource detection will require much of the same tracking technology used to monitor potentially hazardous NEOs, exploitation of space resources will automatically increase the financial resources being directed to NEO research and therefore the identification of potential asteroid threats. There are even ways in which the two objectives could work directly in tandem, for example in the development of mineral extraction and transportation technology that could also function as part of the deflection mechanism for a threatening NEO. As we approach the day in which space resource extraction becomes a viable source of profit for private corporations, the international community must establish a framework for cooperation between national space agencies and future NEO privateers. We cannot ignore the possibility of a scenario arising in which a private company wishes to continue an extraction operation on an NEO that has been identified as hazardous and targeted for a deflection mission. Thus, we must develop international regulations well in advance of such a dilemma to ensure that the safety of all humans is prioritized over the longevity of a corporate space venture.
Recommendations & Conclusions
A unique challenge posed by potentially hazardous NEOs is that they represent a “luxury hazard,” a threat that requires billions of dollars’ worth of technology to even detect. States will not prioritize an investigation into a catastrophe 20 years into the future when they face the far more immediate disasters of war and poverty. However a state’s inability, or even unwillingness, to participate in international efforts to manage the asteroid threat does not absolve us of our responsibility to respond if its citizens are threatened by an impact. As discussed above, allowing a large asteroid to continue its descent to Earth, no matter where its projected impact site might be, would be imprudent in that it would expose everyone along the risk corridor to threats associated with the premature explosion of the meteor and would base its conclusions on an often imprecise science. Even more compelling, however, are the international norms which allowing such an impact would violate. Some might consider the decision to do nothing to stop a technologically preventable disaster that could kill hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people tantamount to a crime against humanity, a phenomenon against which the UN has established a firm international obligation to protect.18 “Responsibility to Protect,” as the doctrine is known, attests to a certain sense of global citizenship that many advocates for asteroid protection seem to share. For Schweickart, impacting NEOs represent a threat to the integrity and longevity of humanity itself, a matter quite outside of national identity. When Schweickart testified before Congress in 2007, asking for their support in NEO mitigation research and development, he went so far as to say that if we fail to prevent a serious asteroid impact, we will have “failed to meet our evolutionary responsibility.”19
If we were to follow Schweickart’s statement to its logical conclusion, we would realize that “international” cooperation does not go far enough in addressing the asteroid threat. “International” implies different entities coming together, but in order to truly understand this threat as first and foremost a threat to humanity, we must abolish the ideas of separate entities altogether. While the UN’s discussions represent a promising start for establishing a global consciousness about dangers posed by NEOs and our technological capacity to prevent such dangers, the UN in its current capacity as a group of states, rather than a genuine global governing body, will never be able to see asteroids as a “planetary problem,” despite the best efforts of Rusty Schweickart and the ASE. However, we can move in that direction. We can develop a task force truly representative of the world’s population, that gives talent from areas not normally exposed to this field the chance to participate in and contribute to space research, that spends years developing a mitigation plan in advance, with public oversight so that politics does not trump good sense and racial, ethnic, and national considerations do not factor into a decision made about when or where to deflect. This decision, again, will ultimately fall to those who have the resources to mount a deflection mission in the first place. So, let us concentrate those resources in the hands of the right people, people who are not charged with representing any particular identity or background but whose diverse experiences will ensure that a wide variety of perspectives can always be incorporated into decision-making. The most important thing may simply be to start early. It would be best if we had the resources and foresight to mount a deflection mission for every NEO with a high probability of striking Earth. It would be best if we had a long time to think about how this would be done. It would be best if we allowed NEO scientists to do NEO science and to make judgments about disasters on the basis of good sense and respect for human life rather than the basis of political allegiance.
NEO enthusiasts ultimately seem to share one very important sentiment: a quiet awe at the fact that we have attained such a level of technological advancement that we are actually able to alter a cosmic event as a means of promoting the survival of our species. “The very concept of being able to slightly alter the workings of the cosmos to enhance the survival of life on Earth is staggeringly bold,” Schweickart reminds us in his testimony.20 Such feelings speak to a reverence for human inquiry, a force in common with NEOs in that it knows no national boundaries. This begs the question: if we have the power to save the world, why not do so in the interest of the world, rather than for the lines we have arbitrarily drawn across it? We must re- envision what outer space has to offer—not a competitive edge over other countries, but an opportunity to better humanity through international research, exploration, and yes, perhaps even resource extraction. We must remember that while we cannot say for sure whether or not we are alone in the universe, for now, our fellow humans are all that we have. If ever there was a reason to think ourselves citizens of Earth, this is it.
1Elizabeth Howell, “What If Earth Was Threatened By An Asteroid Strike? Astronaut Panel Brings Up Ideas To Search, Deflect These Threats,” Universe Today, October 25, 2013, http://www.universetoday.com/105757/what-if- earth-was-under-attack-by-an-asteroid-astronaut-panel-brings-up-ideas-to-search-deflect-these-threats/.
2Alan Yu, “Space Agencies of the World, Unite: The U.N.’s Asteroid Defense Plan,” National Public Radio, November 3, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/11/03/242353389/space-agencies-of-the-world-unite-the-u-n-s- asteroid-defense-plan.
3Association of Space Explorers International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, “Asteroid Threats: A Call For Global Response” (report submitted for the consideration of the United Nations September 25, 2008
4Simon Rogers, “Nasa Budgets: US spending on space travel since 1958,” The Guardian, February 1, 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/feb/01/nasa-budgets-us-spending-space-travel.
5Michael J. Goldstein, “NASA Funding Slow, Not Steady After Space Race,” Science 318 (2007), 1721.
6“International Space Station: International Cooperation,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/cooperation/index.html#.UqIEYfRDsxo
8Richard Stone, “Preparing For Doomsday,” Science 319 (2008), 1327.
9“Sentinel Mission: Overview,” B612 Foundation, http://b612foundation.org/sentinel-mission/overview/.
10Saul Mendlovitz and John Fousek, “Enforcing the Law on Genocide,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 21 (1996), 240.
11Association of Space Explorers, “Asteroid Threats,” 24-5.
12Russell L. Schweickart, The Need for a United Nations Asteroid Deflection Treaty to Establish a System for Trustworthy Mission Design and Execution (Houston: B612 Foundation, 2003).
13J.D. Giorgini et. Al., “Asteroid 1950 DA’s Encounter with Earth in 2880: Physical Limits of Collision Probability Prediction,” Science 296 (2002), 135.
14Stone, “Preparing for Doomsday,” 1327.
15Alan Boyle, “Russian meteor’s terrifying trek detailed in new studies,” NBC News, November 6, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/russian-meteors-terrifying-trek-detailed-new-studies-8C11542598.
16William K. Hartmann & Andrei Sokolov, “Evaluating Space Resources in the Context of Earth Impact Hazards: Asteroid Threat or Asteroid Opportunity,” in Hazards Due to Comets and Asteroids, ed. Tom Gehrels (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994), 1214-17.
17Valerie A. Olson, “Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System,” Anthropological Quarterly 85 (2012): 1035.
18“UN Responsibility to Protect,” United Nations, http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml.
19B612 Foundation, “Testimony of Russell L. Schweickart,” 13
Association of Space Explorers International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation. “Asteroid Threats: A Call For Global Response.” Report submitted for the consideration of the United Nations September 25, 2008.
B612 Foundation. “Testimony of Russell L. Schweickart, Chairman, B612 Foundation, before the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology.” Presented before the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee October 11, 2007.
Boyle, Alan. “Russian meteor’s terrifying trek detailed in new studies.” NBC News. November 6, 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/science/russian-meteors-terrifying-trek- detailed-new-studies-8C11542598.
Giorgini, J.D., S.J. Ostro, L.A.M. Benner, P.W. Chodas, S.R. Chesley, R.S. Hudson, M.C.
Nolan, A.R. Klemola, E.M. Standish, R.F. Jurgens, R. Rose, A.B. Chamberlin, D.K. Yeomans & J.-L. Margot. “Asteroid 1950 DA’s Encounter with Earth in 2880: Physical Limits of Collision Probability Prediction.” Science 296 (2002). 132-136.
Goldstein, Michael J. “NASA Funding Slow, Not Steady After Space Race.” Science 318 (2007). 1721.
Hartmann, William K. & Sokolov, Andrei. “Evaluating Space Resources in the Context of Earth Impact Hazards: Asteroid Threat or Asteroid Opportunity.” In Hazards Due to Comets and Asteroids, edited by Tom Gehrels, 1213-1224. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.
Howell, Elizabeth. “What If Earth Was Threatened By An Asteroid Strike? Astronaut Panel Brings Up Ideas To Search, Deflect These Threats.” Universe Today. October 25, 2013, http://www.universetoday.com/105757/what-if-earth-was-under-attack-by-an-asteroid- astronaut-panel-brings-up-ideas-to-search-deflect-these-threats/.
Mendlovitz, Saul and Fousek, John. “Enforcing the Law on Genocide.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 21 (1996). 237-258.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “International Space Station: International Cooperation.” http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/cooperation/index.html#.UqIEYfRDsxo.
Olson, Valerie A. “Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System.” Anthropological Quarterly 85 (2012). 1027-1044.
Rogers, Simon. “Nasa Budgets: US spending on space travel since 1958.” The Guardian. February 1, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/feb/01/nasa-budgets- us-spending-space-travel.
Schweickart, Russell L. The Need for a United Nations Asteroid Deflection Treaty to Establish a System for Trustworthy Mission Design and Execution. Houston: B612 Foundation, 2003.
Stone, Richard. “Preparing For Doomsday.” Science 319 (2008). 1326-1329.
United Nations, “UN Responsibility to Protect,” www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml.
Yu, Alan. “Space Agencies of the World, Unite: The U.N.’s Asteroid Defense Plan.” National Public Radio. November 3, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/11/03/242353389/space- agencies-of-the-world-unite-the-u-n-s-asteroid-defense-plan.