Planetary Protection - A Credible Threat to Humanity
Near-Earth objects (NEOs) pose a serious and credible threat to humanity. We know that many NEOshave struck the Earth in the past, causing huge devastation and mass extinction. We don't know wherethe next impactor is, or when it will strike. No federal agency has been tasked with responsibility for finding all of the threatening NEOs, or coming up with a plan to protect the Earth if a killer NEO isdiscovered. This is a national failure.
NEOs are a Serious and Credible Threat to Humanity
. For example, Apophis, is a relatively small270-meter asteroid with a small chance of striking the Earth in 2036. NASA has estimated thatApophis would release the equivalent of 880 megatons of energy or about 60,000 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Still larger and less frequent impacts are responsible for Earth’s mass extinctions.
There is Great Uncertainty
. An asteroid could be coming at Earth in the next year, or in the next tenyears, and we might not know it. Even among the largest asteroids in Earth's vicinity — asteroidslarge enough to completely destroy human civilization — we estimate that approximately 200 havenot been discovered. Another 200 of the "civilization-killers" that we have identified have a non-zeroimpact probability. It is estimated that there are over 1 million smaller NEOs — each one at leastcapable of producing the equivalent of a very large nuclear bomb over any city on this planet. For example, in 1908 a NEO impacted over Tunguska, Siberia, and leveled an area larger than the entireWashington DC metro area. The small Tunguska object was about 30 meters in diameter, andresulted in a blast equivalent to 3-5 megtons of TNT, or 300-500 times more powerful than the atomicbomb dropped on Hiroshima. We have discovered <1% of the estimated million objects in this class.
A Tragedy of the Commons
. Everybody knows this threat exists, but nobody wants the job. Therehave been multiple congressional hearings on this subject, but the previous White House refused totask any federal agency with responsibility.
A 2010 Legal Deadline for the White House
. The 2008 NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 6063), recentlysigned by the President, establishes an October 2010 deadline for the White House Office of Scienceand Technology Policy to recommend a lead agency for protecting the United States from NEOs.
Lack of Action has National Security Implications
. A surprise nuclear-level detonation over amajor city in one of the many unstable parts of the world could have catastrophic consequences for world peace. Imagine the repercussions of a surprise 10-20 megaton explosion over Israel or Iran,Pakistan or India, or over the Chinese missile base across from Taiwan.
A Global Emergency Response System is Needed
. A growing number of NEOs are discoveredonly a few days before they impact the Earth. Increasingly, we can predict where they will impactwith high reliability. Therefore, it is possible that we will soon discover that a small NEO, with theenergy of a very large nuclear bomb, will hit a specific spot on the Earth in a couple days and killlarge numbers of people unless a large-scale evacuation is immediately organized. An ocean impactwill cause major tsunamis and catastrophic damage to coastal areas world-wide. A rapid organizedglobal emergency response to evacuate the affected areas could save many millions of lives.
Planetary Protection Provides a Dual-Use Economic Benefit
. The capabilities required to safelycontrol and manage our NEO population are dual-use - as asteroid materials can be safely capturedinto Earth orbit and converted into valuable space resources of benefit to people on Earth.
Public Will Support Action
. Polls from 2002 to 2005 from Matula & Loveland indicate PlanetaryProtection is one of two goals that have consistently scored higher than all other potential goals for the US space program, including significantly greater levels of public support than Mars or Lunar exploration. The subject enjoys prominent and increasing media coverage — as our telescopesincrease in capability the number of "near misses" reported in the press is rapidly growing.
We Can Do Something & The Cost of Meaningful Action is Low
. A great deal of initial progresscan be accomplished without expending additional budgetary resources, solely by creating a policythat identifies this threat for proactive interagency deliberate planning, and identifying a lead agencyto conduct strategic planning for detection, response and mitigation. Subsequent action to find thevast majority of these objects can accomplished at a reasonable cost within existing resources.