September 6, 2014

Tomorrow's asteroid will miss us, but what about the one that doesn't?

Joseph Stromberg, Vox - On Sunday afternoon — at 2:15 pm Eastern time, to be exact — a small asteroid will whiz by the Earth.

Don't worry: it'll miss us by about 25,000 miles. To be clear, there is zero chance it can hit us. This is certain.

But in the long-term, worrying a little about asteroids isn't an unreasonable idea. Now, the odds of a massively destructive asteroid impact at any given time are tiny — but the potential costs would be enormous. Yet we still haven't invested in all the infrastructure needed to spot small asteroids with much warning (we spotted this one less than a week ago). And we've done nothing to develop the ability to divert a larger one if it threatened us.

... An asteroid of this size likely comes around once every few thousand years. That might not sound very frequent to you.

But the problem is that, given enough time, it will occur. And conceivably, we hope to stick around for a long time, as a species. But we haven't bothered to invest enough in efforts to detect asteroids to ensure this will happen.

Last week, I interviewed Alexander Rose, the direction of the Long Now Foundation, an organization that thinks our species has failed to engage in truly long-term thinking. He felt an epitome of this was the way we largely disregard the threat of asteroids.

"We know that, at some point, a catastrophic meteor or asteroid will impact this planet," he said. "For the first time in human history, we have the capability to detect and potentially divert it. Yet we aren't really putting any money into that." How we fail to defend ourselves from asteroids

... If we did spot an asteroid heading our way, we don't have any proven means of stopping it. The simplest way would probably be sending a craft crashing into the asteroid, nudging it off its path enough so that it'd miss Earth. The UN has proposed designing and testing a network of small probes that would be capable of doing so, but it's still waiting on the necessary funding from various national space agencies, with an estimated price tag of about $2.5 billion.

Funding all three of these projects — the two telescopes and the impact avoidance system — would cost a lot. Let's be generous and say they'd cost $5 billion in total. Now compare that to the cost of, say, the cost of the Sochi Olympics ($51 billion), or the cost of the F-35 fighter plane program ($400 billion). Screw it, compare it to the cost of a new football stadium for the Dallas Cowboys ($1.2 billion, with about a quarter paid by taxpayers).

When it comes to asteroids, we're talking about natural disasters that are probably preventable. Figuring out how to do so would be a relatively cheap insurance plan that would benefit the entire species.

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