Asteroid! The Doomsday Rock
(CBC — November 2003)
Logline: “We know how life on Earth will end, so what are we doing about it?”
This was the poster slogan (superimposed on an artist’s image of a dinosaur-killing asteroid crashing into Earth) used to promote a two-hour documentary special we made for the CBC in 2003. Another disaster flick? Not really. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is why I’ve clung to this story as well. A less theatrical quote that could have been used was this: “Earth’s largest, most devastating environmental calamity… is entirely preventable.” At least in theory.
Like planting trees and saving salmon, the detecting and deflecting of asteroids is a story that falls into the category of finding solutions. Who’s doing it? Who’s got the best ideas? How’s this going to work?
The Doomsday Rock documentary told the tale of a team of astronauts, astronomers and engineers who believe—and intend to prove—they can save the Earth from cosmic catastrophe. It should have been a good news story.
American astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who flew on NASA’s Apollo 9 moon mission, was in 2003 chairman of The B612 Foundation, a newly-minted multinational lobby group trying to pitch the idea of a “planetary defense” mission. Schweickart insists asteroid impacts are the world’s only preventable natural disasters. We can’t stop earthquakes and can’t block tsunamis or hurricanes, but the space cowboys of B612 are convinced they can—with existing technology—find and divert incoming sky stones that have the potential to cause another “extinction event” on Earth.
Orbital mechanics is a mature and precise science. Which means finding dangerous rocks in space and plotting their trajectories is very doable. NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the European Space Agency (ESSA), and others are working on this to a limited extent already. What the B612 group wants to do is upgrade the technology, launch new asteroid-hunter telescopes, build “space tugboats” and learn through practice missions how to wrangle asteroids. They want to organize a network of search-and-response teams worldwide. Sounds like an excellent plan.
So what, you might ask, is stopping them? The short answer is: politics and money.
Yes, I realize world leaders have plenty of urgent fires to piss on already. But they’re also stuck in the mental rut of cutting taxes, slashing government services, and dodging responsibilities in order to get themselves re-elected. But here’s the thing: asteroids are not just the largest and most troublesome elephants in the room. They are probably the only enormous problem with a definite solution.
Some asteroids are tumbling rockpiles the size of Mount Everest, travelling at 35,000 miles per hour. Our pale blue dot of a planet has a target painted across its fragile heart. The dinosaurs never saw it coming; we, on the other hand, might. Unlike dinosaurs, we have technology that could prevent another extinction. Yet no political leader I’m aware of wants to acknowledge or even talk about this. What?—nobody wants to be a hero?
Space rocks have been added to a growing list of topics (such as climate change, geoengineering, and earthquake preparedness) that first ministers and presidents steadfastly avoid. Presumably they’ve decided it’s easier to cross their fingers and hope the ruination of life on Earth doesn’t happen on their watch.
There are fascinatingly obtuse legal and cultural reasons why NASA (for one) is actually prevented from making asteroids a high priority. It has to do with the technical definition of “pure research” and exploration (NASA’s official mandates) versus “applied science” which is supposed to be somebody else’s job. But whose? The responsibility for defending the entire planet from outside threats belongs to no one at the moment.
If civilian agencies like NASA, CSA and ESSA can’t or don’t take the lead and show the way to solve this problem, others surely will fill the gap. Others meaning the military. Because—who else ya gonna call? Nature will not tolerate a vacuum; somebody will be forced to step in. Okay—so what’s wrong with letting the military defend us from interplanetary threats? Allow me to rephrase the question: whose military would the whole world trust?
Consider this scenario: we procrastinate too long; don’t send up and test the necessary satellite telescopes to detect and map the incoming rocks; we don’t develop space tugboat technology to divert incoming asteroids; then suddenly a tumbling rock appears out of nowhere with a bull’s-eye focus on a single country. The rock is only the size of a football field, but it’s plenty big enough to kill an entire city when it hits. The leaders of this unlucky country—in a panic—ask their air force generals to do whatever they can to nudge it off target.
Let’s say this asteroid is bound for Moscow. So Russia’s air force tries to deflect the rock so that it misses the Earth. But their untried technology screws up. Instead of hitting Moscow—instead of slipping past our planet entirely—the asteroid now heads for London. Or New York. The destruction of a major city—someone else’s city—is imminent. Whose fault will this be? Who pays the damages? As soon as man intervenes, it’s no longer an “act of God.” Somebody will have to pay.
Wouldn’t it be better to tackle this elephant ahead of time? Create a multinational brains-trust of non-military scientists to research, perfect and deploy a planetary defense system? For lack of a better suggestion, why not assign the job to the United Nations? With expertise and input from all space-faring nations the UN could provide protection and fair treatment for all, not just those blessed with high-tech capabilities. Makes perfect sense; so again—why isn’t this happening?
Again, to a minor extent, it is. The UN does have a committee that’s investigating. But asteroids are still not a priority on anyone’s political agenda. Which is why the B612 Foundation is now trying to mount a private-sector initiative to fund, build, and launch their own asteroid-hunter telescope. It’s the stuff heroes are made of.
And here’s a postscript: a long-running controversy over what killed off the dinosaurs has reignited. Some geologists think the mass extinction was caused by continent-wide lava flows, toxic gases, rapid global warming, and ocean acidification. Those who continue to argue a giant asteroid was the culprit have recently suggested the asteroid’s impact may have triggered a “magnitude-12 earthquake” and the massive lava flow—a deadly one-two punch.