That the announcement an asteroid will pass 1.3 Earth-moon distances, or about 500,000 kilometers from the earth on Halloween was met with a collective sigh of relief misses two larger points: 1) that we, basically, never saw this coming and 2) we are woefully unprepared to cope with it and its aftermath in the event of a direct impact!
Although its orbit is highly eccentric with our tracking and trajectory prediction modeling being quite precise, a slight change in the asteroid’s trajectory angle could have resulted in a direct impact and a regional catastrophe for the affected area. The asteroid was discovered on October 10 of this year, only two weeks ago by the PanSTARRS 1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) survey. Two weeks is not enough time for any preparation, for anyone! Contingency scenarios related to potential impact events such as the one we will just miss are scoped in terms of years and decades, not weeks! Amid budget battles raging in congress and ongoing talks therein of continued cuts to science programs (NSF has been cash strapped for years), does this interloper appear, serendipitously, perhaps, to underscore the need to maintain funding for essential science programs. It should be pointed out that one of the original purposes of the PanSTARRS program was early detection and identification of NEO’s or Near Earth Objects that pose a threat. The earlier a threat is detected, the more time is available to prepare. Located on Hawaii’s beautiful Mount Haleakala, PanSTARRS was almost shuttered in 2011 when the Republican led House of Representatives failed to agree on a funding package for continued construction, maintenance and operation of the facility. But for an anonymous $3 million infusion of cash, a gift made through the University of Hawaii Foundation, we would have missed this close call and, to date, 345 other near-Earth asteroids, including 29 that are potentially hazardous, as well as 19 previously unobserved comets. It is really quite sad and telling of our priorities, that the generosity and foresight of an anonymous donor would save us from ourselves. It is unclear, given the asteroid’s intrinsic properties, whether we would have detected it any sooner, given that prior to PanSTARRS the necessary technology did not exist to detect such an object traveling at high orbital velocity and with such a low albedo (surface reflectivity). Since PanSTARRS is the only program explicitly tasked with this mission, with the program design scope calling for four telescopes, it is an open question as to whether three additional instruments would have facilitated earlier detection. That, however, further underscores the need for continued investment in the STEM fields. We dodged a bullet this time but the next time we may not be so lucky.
To the current cadre of individuals contending for the office of President of the United States, take a lesson from this! The earth is much older than 6,000 years and there isn’t a grey-bearded spirit god in the sky that’s going to save us from ourselves. There will be no Rapture that will lift us off the earth and up into the clouds and no one will come to our rescue so, well paid Neurosurgeons and other candidates for the 46th President of the United States, please take note. For the first time in history, we have the technology to save ourselves from utter destruction from above and, what do we do, we hold congressional hearings about email severs, whether the president is a US citizen and other such nonsense.
NASA’s budget is roughly 1% of this country’s military budget, a budget that includes ongoing funding for failed programs such as the F-35 and 12 new aircraft carriers! Plagued with a laundry list of problems and, at almost $100 million a copy, the F-35 had been regarded in the same manner as the recent banking fiasco where it was deemed that the large commercial banks were “too big to fail”. The F-35 program is regarded in a likewise fashion. One shoot-down or lost aircraft would cost the US taxpayers $100 million! Granted, the nation should have a robust, responsive military but this is just overdoing it! NASA’s budget over the past 50 years, in total, is equivalent to the DOD budget for fiscal 2011, a single year! And why on earth do we need 12 brand new aircraft carriers! Even a 1/2º shift in the subject asteroid’s trajectory could spell disaster and wipe out an area equivalent to the entire US Northeast but we just have to have 12 band new aircraft carriers and a $100 million-dollar-a-copy white elephant that even some hawks in congress believe is far too costly.
Traveling at a rapid clip of 35 km/sec, a speed unusually high for objects such as this (the earth’s orbital velocity is 29.5 km/sec) with a size of approximately 300 meters and a density of about 2, a direct impact by the asteroid would have released 20 million Terra Joules of energy or the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima class weapons exploding at the same time and at the same place!
What will it take for us to act since we obviously haven’t learned yet in spite of numerous warnings? The science has been in regarding climate change for years but yet, we don’t act. Now this and what do our elected leaders do? They cut funding for more science programs, explicitly the PanSTARRS program back in 2011! Why? There exists a certain ambivalence and general lack of interest in science, both at the congressional level and in the offices and classrooms of our schools where prioritization, in the face of shrinking budgets and decisions regarding the funding of essential educational programs, is causing many to take a hard look at science. Even at the educational level where one may expect science to survive the budget ax, actions and initiatives by certain post secondary institutions bespeak a different attitude. The more interconnected our world is and the more dependent we are on science and technology to live and maintain a certain minimum standard of living, the more important the STEM fields become. The importance of a robust and authentic science education with the necessary funding at the highest levels of government cannot be overstated and needs to be a priority. Science will create the foundations for our longevity as a species and cannot be sidelined even if that means cutting defense spending!
Civilizations will rise and fall over the coming millennia, ours included, sooner, rather than later if we continue to ignore the need to be proactive and invest in science; if we fail, we will have no legacy as everything will be wiped out, if we succeed, then, that we succeed will be our enduring legacy, that we didn’t fail our children, their children, their trust and our progeny.