Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 3 March 2013
See also, previous columns:
23 Dec 2012: Avoiding the ‘Mother of All Tsunamis’
Imagine this scenario in the near future.
Thanks to enhanced surveillance of the skies, astronomers detect a five-km-long asteroid on a collision course with our planet. They also calculate that the impact isn’t due for another…25 years.
What reactions, if any, might this elicit?
As we noted last week, a very early warning in such situations can make all the difference. In this game of cosmic billiards, even a modest ‘nudge’ or pull, done far enough in the trajectory, can deflect a hazardous space rock from hitting the Earth.
But how many governments — or inter-governmental organisations or humanitarian groups, for that matter – can really focus on something a full quarter century ahead?
When 189 governments met at the United Nations headquarters in 2000 and adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they committed to achieving them in 15 years. A dozen years on, there has been considerable progress on some MDGs, but very few developing countries are on track to accomplish all the (fairly basic) targets.
The millennial euphoria has long since been replaced by globalised terrorism, recessions, mass unemployment and other crises. Could a planetary scale asteroid hazard, scientifically confirmed yet too far down the time horizon for most governments, suffer from policy indifference?
Although we have no direct precedent, humanity’s track record is not very reassuring. Researchers and activists discern trends, connect the dots and advocate preventive or remedial action. But the here-and-today preoccupations of governments don’t leave much room for distant or emerging threats, even when the evidence is unequivocal.
For example, the UN climate panel (IPCC) has been urging substantial cuts in planet-warming greenhouse gases, cautioning there is a limited window of opportunity to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, epidemiologists warn about rising antibiotic resistance and new viruses that can wreak havoc on public health. But political action has been slow.
It’s a formidable communication challenge: getting the usually myopic governments, as well as our largely ephemeral media, to take the longer term view without losing their grip over current realities.
We just had plenty of Chicken Licken running around proclaiming the sky was falling. Now, try talking about that in serious survival terms…
How can communicators help? Science fiction writers and Hollywood filmmakers have long used planetary disaster scenarios. Some movies have popularised the topic, albeit with various degrees of accuracy.
An early example was the movie Meteor (1979), in which scientists who detect an asteroid on a collision course struggle with Cold War politics in their efforts to avert disaster.
That story was inspired by Project Icarus, an assignment given to a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1968 on how to deflect a hypothetical Earth-threatening asteroid. The name was derived from 1566 Icarus, a 1 km wide asteroid that occasionally comes a few million km close to Earth. (Details at http://tiny.cc/ProIca)
Perhaps the best known movie on this theme was Deep Impact (1998), directed by Mimi Leder. In that story, repeated attempts to deflect a killer asteroid fail, leaving political leaders with difficult choices of who should be saved in hastily built shelters.
Fear and Panic
The movie also highlighted another dilemma: when to go public once an impending NEO impact is scientifically confirmed. Such an announcement can trigger panic, anarchy and market collapses.
While Hollywood loves to scare us out of our wits, in reality such a drastic end can be averted. In the aftermath of the meteor that exploded over Russia on 15 February 2013, the threat has again drawn the attention of governments and military.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been studying asteroid deflection technologies for years. Three key options are summed up as “the gentle pull, the swift kick and nuking”. The best method in a given situation will depend on the threatening asteroid’s size, composition, orbit and how early it is detected.
“If we actually found an asteroid on a collision course, we could predict the impact decades in advance. And we believe we have the technology in our space programme to deflect it so that the event doesn’t even happen,” says astrophysicist Dr David Morrison, former director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, and a leading researcher on the subject.
He adds: “I could study earthquakes all my life, and I might be able to improve my ability to predict them — but I could never develop a technology to stop an earthquake from happening. In studying asteroids, I not only have the potential to predict the next calamity, but actually to avoid it.”
Planetary Defense film
Morrison is one of over a dozen experts and military strategies interviewed in Planetary Defense, an excellent 2007 documentary film made by Canadian filmmaker M Moidel. Since its global premiere at the UN Headquarters, the film has inspired much discussion and debate, and broadcast on TV.
In a recent email interview, I asked him what surprised him the most when he researched while making the film. He listed several: only a handful of people, a hundred or so around the Earth, are working on asteroid hazard mitigation; so little (sustained or pulsing) force is required to move a big asteroid or comet (once it is de-spun) to make it miss the Earth entirely; and there is little day-to-day concern about it among ordinary (non-technical) people.
Even the Siberian meteor story didn’t last too long in the 24/7 news cycle, which worries Moidel. “After going viral for not even a week, the story has died down from the news (not enough devastation or death?), and people are going about their daily business.”
He adds: “Although the Russian government is now calling for space-faring nations to cooperate and work on Space Defense or Planetary Defense, it might take a few more near-misses, on a regular basis, to make any real ‘impact’ in human acquiescence to this threat!”
The threat of NEO impacts is becoming clearer, but can our world –- divided into nearly 200 (often bickering) nation states — think in planetary terms?
Moidel realizes that people (and governments) have short attention spans — and shorter memories when it doesn’t affect them directly.
“Currently, NEO searches are being done on minimal budgets. The how-to’s are being thought out by some of the greatest minds on the planet…Decades of planning, command and control, NEO characterizations and deflection techniques — all these are critical in mitigating impacts with the Earth.”
Science fiction author Larry Niven once put it colourfully: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme!”
And despite having space-faring capability, our own civilization could be in danger unless we take NEO hazards seriously – and get the message across to everyone who matters.
Read my full interview with M Moidel at: http://tiny.cc/MMoidel
Planetary Defense: Trailer