Weapons Not the Answer for Potentially Catastrophic Meteors

By Stew Magnuson

When it comes to the protecting the planet from “near-Earth objects,” experts said July 8 that space-observation systems would be a better way to spend federal dollars than the development of weapon systems.

With this year’s discovery of the 10,000th near-Earth object, government officials have become increasingly concerned with what that may mean for the security of the planet.

“The nature of the threat is changing,” said Mark Boslough, principle member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. Of low-altitude airbursts, “the threat is increasing,” he said at panel hosted by the Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C.

These types of meteors enter the atmosphere at a low enough angle that they are able to have ground-level impacts.

In February, an airburst produced by the Chelyabinsk meteor in Russia injured nearly 1,500 people.

“We were lucky it was a grazing impact,” said Boslough.

Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA’s near-Earth object program, said,  “The cost of building observational systems and discovering, tracking, and documenting all of those [is] much less than building some system to go after a threat we can’t aver with the technology we have today. It makes much more sense to put those resources into observational facilities.”

There is, however, the threat of a larger object entering under more dangerous circumstances than what was experienced in Russia. While the number of objects discovered to be 10 kilometers or larger is few, an object of this size could cause mass extinction, the panelists said.

Currently, around 600,000 asteroids and comets have been discovered and are being tracked by NASA.

“Constant vigilance is the name of the game,” said Irwin Shapiro of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It’s a balance of threats and risks.”

Building a weapon system to deflect an object on a collision course with Earth is “a little off the wall,” said Shapiro.

“There’s never an optimal solution to everything,” said Johnson.

Though impacts are rare, the threat caused by undiscovered near-Earth objects is ever-looming. According to NASA data, there have been 10 “close approaches” since July 2.

“Earth has a cratered past,” said Johnson. “Impact is a planetary process.”

There are 184 known craters caused by near-Earth objects, according to Johnson.

There is uncertainty involved the movement of near-Earth objects, and what to do in the event of a potential collision.

Shapiro suggested that the best way to defend against the threat of near-Earth objects is to observe what might be coming both from the ground and from space, and to pay attention to the time it would take to impact Earth as well as the diameter of an identified object.

With enough warning time, there are opportunities to prevent cosmic collisions, said Shapiro. Johnson seconded, claiming that these collisions are one of the only truly preventable natural disasters on Earth.

“It’s just a question of getting the observations,” said Johnson.

The near-Earth object program at NASA was established in 1998, and has found 98 percent of the most recently detected objects. The agency has been able to rapidly identify and track 10,009 objects, including 94 comets through the Minor Planet Center and NEO program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA also released a “Grand Challenge Statement” on June 18, which lists the long-term plans of its near-Earth objects. It will consist of an asteroid identification, redirection, and crewed exploration segments, respectively.

It ultimately hopes to launch a manned mission to explore an asteroid.

Topics: Space

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