Asteroids as Another Existential Threat

Do we best prepare for uncertain existential future threats by huge centrally planned government spending, or by allowing the flourishing of general purpose technologies and nimble entrepreneurs?

(p. C4) The most immediate threat isn’t from the largest or smallest asteroids but from those in between. Over the past two decades, asteroid hunters with NASA and other international space agencies have identified and tracked the orbits of more than 20,000 asteroids—also known as near-Earth objects—that pass through our neighborhood as they orbit the sun. Of those, about 2,000 are classified as potentially hazardous—asteroids that are large enough (greater than 150 yards in diameter) to cause local destruction and that come close enough to Earth to someday pose a threat.

The good news is that scientists don’t expect any of these known asteroids to collide with Earth within at least the next century. Some will come pretty close, though: On an unlucky Friday the 13th in April 2029, the thousand-foot-wide asteroid Apophis will pass a mere 19,000 miles from Earth—closer than the satellites that bring us DISH TV.

But here’s the bad news: Hundreds of thousands of other near-Earth asteroids, both large and small, haven’t been identified. We have no idea where they are and where they are going. On Feb. 15, 2013, a relatively small, 60-foot-wide asteroid traveling at 43,000 mph exploded in the atmosphere near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, sending out a blast wave that injured 1,500 people. No one had seen the asteroid coming.

We need to find and track these unknown invaders as soon as possible. But while NASA’s “planetary defense” budget has been steadily increasing over the past decade, the $150 million allocated in 2019 for asteroid detection, asteroid tracking and related programs amounts to less than 1% of the space agency’s $21.5 billion budget.

For the full commentary, see:

Gordon L. Dillow. “The Asteroid Peril Isn’t Science Fiction.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 5, 2019): C4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 5, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

Dillow’s commentary is related to his book:

Dillow, Gordon L. Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth. New York: Scribner, 2019.

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