TECHNOLOGY TOMORROW SPACE

Planetary Defense: A New Hot Market

2/1/2016
By Stew Magnuson
If there is one thing more important than national defense, it’s planetary defense.

There are objects in outer space that could potentially wipe out humanity and they are not malevolent little green men in spaceships. They are asteroids and comets, and a bigger than average sized one striking Earth would be the equivalent of the United States, Russia, China and the whole rest of the “club” popping off all their nukes at once.

With little fanfare, NASA in January opened up its planetary defense coordination office with a mandate to identify potential chunks of rock hurdling toward Earth and to stop them if possible.

The 2016 budget, which was recently passed, allocated $50 million this year alone for the office, five times what has been budgeted for detection and mitigation of “near-Earth” objects in the past.

Big defense contractors — particularly those involved in space such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman — will most likely be seeking contracts in this emerging new defense market. If a mission is needed to stop a killer asteroid, $50 million will be a drop in the bucket.

How real is the threat?

There are more than 13,500 near-Earth objects of various sizes that have been spotted to date. That doesn’t count the ones that have not been discovered, a NASA news release states.

In short, they have struck Earth before, and it’s impossible to rule out that it will never happen again. The history of near-Earth objects striking Earth is writ all over the face of the planet. The Chicxulub Crater buried beneath the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is suspect number one as the object that killed off the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. The crater is 100 miles long, 12 miles deep and is only the second largest one found on Earth. Scientists speculate that it caused mega-tsunamis, covered the world in ash, radically altered the atmosphere and created dust that blotted out the sun. 

So is 66 million years “just a blink of an eye” in geological terms, or are we overdue for another impact?

A reminder that we are at the mercy of the cosmos arrived in Russia on Feb. 15, 2013, when the Chelyabinsk meteor came skimming across the upper atmosphere and exploded before reaching the ground. It weighed approximately 10,000 metric tons and had gone undetected. The effects of the shockwave injured more than 1,500 victims and caused widespread damage. If it had arrived at a different trajectory, the results would have been far worse.

Not more than a day later, a second previously undetected asteroid came within 17,200 miles of Earth. The two events were coincidental, scientists said. They were coming from completely different trajectories. The two incidents created a sense of urgency. Efforts to detect asteroids and possibly mitigate impacts were ad hoc and spread out in various NASA programs. The new office is a step to bring everything under one umbrella.

There is some good news. More than 90 percent of near-Earth objects larger than 3,000 feet have already been discovered, NASA said. The new office will focus on finding objects that are “slightly bigger than a football field” at 450 feet or larger. NASA relies on a global network of astronomers using ground-based telescopes as well as the space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope to find these potential killers. The spacecraft, constructed by Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin, was launched in 2009.

“The office … will also take a leading role in coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats,” a NASA statement said.

Interagency coordination will include the Defense Department, National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security components such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Of course, if it comes to FEMA being called in, that means bad news. FEMA would handle the preparations and response planning related to the consequences of atmospheric entry or impact to U.S. communities, the statement said.

Hopefully, it will not come to that. Part of the new office’s mission will be to develop technology to stop an impact.

There are two notable programs being pursued. NASA has an “asteroid redirect mission,” which will send a robot to space where it will capture and return a boulder-sized sample to place in the moon’s orbit where it can be studied. A secondary goal is to explore planetary defense technologies. This mission is not expected to launch until the 2020s.

A more direct attempt to defend against asteroids is a joint European Space Agency-NASA program, the “asteroid impact and deflection assessment mission.” It has actually identified a rock called 65803 Didymous that will be close enough to Earth in October 2022 to test the ability to move a near-Earth object into a different trajectory.

It will send two independent spacecraft to the asteroid. The NASA double asteroid redirection test mission led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will crash into Didymous to nudge it into a different path. An ESA spacecraft will be there to assess and observe the impact.

One hopes that the office comes up with other concepts and technologies and puts some real money into them.

The nation doesn’t want to see the day when the president calls a press conference to announce that an asteroid the size of a skyscraper is going to strike the Earth in two years.

“What are the plans to stop it?” a reporter will inevitably ask.

“Well, first we’re going to release a request for proposals, and then we’re going to hold an industry day.”

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Space

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