From former Planetary Society Executive Director Lou Friedman's Op-Ed piece (October 27, 2010) on planetary defense (views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The Planetary Society)...
It is unlikely that anytime soon an asteroid or comet will impact Earth and cause devastating or large-scale damage. But we will probably soon find some object that is deemed potentially hazardous, one that might pose a future danger to Earth. That will be considered a threat. When that happens, defensive action may be contemplated. The discovery of thousands of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) makes us much more aware of previously unknown possibilities and also much more sensitive to the devastating consequences of an impact.
The President’s Science Advisor, Dr. John Holdren, has just sent a ten page letter to the U.S. Congress (PDF) dealing with Planetary Defense. The letter is a result of Congress asking the Administration for a policy and plan to protect the United States from a potentially hazardous NEO.
It’s great to have this issue addressed. Ignorance should no longer be an excuse for inaction. The Administration’s letter is one more in a series of reports and studies that define the problem and call for more action – observations and tracking of NEOs, analyzing their composition and structure (including with space missions), and studies of mitigation techniques (deflecting a potentially hazardous object). We have previously mentioned reports from the Association of Space Explorers (PDF) -- the astronauts and cosmonauts organization which has led international consideration of this issue, the International Academy of Astronautics, and a Working Group of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (PDF) , of which The Planetary Society is a member. A special task force of the NASA Advisory Council also has issued a very strong report (PDF) calling for NASA leadership in both public information and global cooperation addressing the issue. Board member Bee Thakore and I prepared a paper and presentation on the subject to the International Astronautical Congress in 2009 .
The Association of Space Explorers, with strong leadership by former astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Tom Jones (a Planetary Society Advisor), is also conducting a series of international workshops developing recommendations for mitigation methods and global policy. Much of their focus has been on the United Nations.
Progress is also being made on the science and technology. The pace of observations has quickened, and more NEOs of smaller and smaller size are being discovered. Space missions are being conducted. In just two weeks the Deep Impact spacecraft, which sent an impactor into a comet back in 2005, will pass by and observe closely Comet Hartley 2. Calls to build more dedicated observatories on Earth, and in space, need to be developed into firm proposals for funding and implementation. One problem is that no federal agency, not even NASA, has the prime responsibility for planetary defense -- hence no mission proposals have yet been generated.
While NASA is far ahead in consideration of the issue, the issue has also been addressed in Europe, particularly England, and in Russia; but only addressed – no programs or plans have been made. The lack of defined policy in the U.S. is mirrored throughout the world. Observation programs are not well funded and space missions are only proposed for science investigations, not for advancing planetary defense readiness.
Dr. Holdren’s letter is very welcome. It should help advance United States government planning. He reaffirms NASA’s lead responsibility for detection of NEOs. He adds that NASA should even lead in the study of mitigation and deflection, coordinating with other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security. He also recommends that the U.S. continue to coordinate with international efforts to study the problem.
I am personally uneasy about NASA being the lead agency to consider mitigation, even though at the moment they know more about the subject than other parts of government. But mitigation involves consideration of nuclear weapons, and deflection of asteroids can be considered a weapon system. Having that as part of NASA’s mission needs some debate (especially if it detracts from space exploration). Inter-agency discussion can help resolve who should be lead; thus, the Administration’s recommendations are a valuable step forward. But it is not enough of a step. Any consideration of NEOs should be international. No nation can consider deflection of a potentially hazardous object unilaterally.
It’s my view that spacefaring nations should organize an ad-hoc task force, which someday might evolve to a treaty organization (analogous to NATO) to address policies, protocols and plans for dealing with the threat of a potentially hazardous object hitting Earth. The United States could, and should, lead by proposing such a task force. We need consideration soon, not because an impact is likely soon, but, because the threat of an impact is likely soon. The Administration’s letter to Congress should have also called for an international task force, clearly stating that NEO detection, observation, investigation, analysis, mitigation and potential deflection are global issues.
Link: Lou's View, October 27, 2010, Starting on Planetary Defense
This area will cover relevant news of the threat to the planet from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) including concepts and designs for mitigation. All opinions are those of the author.
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