(Left to right) Lord Martin Rees, astronomer royal and emeritus professor of cosmology and astronomy at the University of Cambridge; filmmaker Grigorij Richters; and astrophysicist Brian May, lead guitarist for the rock group Queen, at a 3 December briefing on potentially hazardous asteroids. Credit: Max Alexander

A group of astronauts, scientists, business leaders, and artists are calling for a dramatic increase in detecting and monitoring asteroids that could potentially strike the Earth catastrophically. They have announced that 30 June 2015 will be a global asteroid awareness day.

A “100x Asteroid Declaration” issued by the group on 3 December states that out of 1 million asteroids in the solar system that have the potential to strike the Earth and destroy a city, fewer than 10,000, or 1%, have been discovered. The declaration calls for employing available technology to detect and track near-Earth asteroids that threaten human populations. In addition, the document recommends a 100-fold acceleration in discovering and tracking near-Earth asteroids at the rate of 100,000 per year within the next 10 years.

U.S. space shuttle astronaut Ed Lu said that the hurdle to protecting the Earth from asteroids is not a lack of knowledge about how to deflect them but the fact that “we don’t know where they are. We haven’t accurately tracked them.” Lu is cofounder and CEO of the Sentinel Mission, a privately funded space-based infrared survey project to discover and catalog large asteroids in Earth’s region of the solar system.

“Lots of good work has been done so far in identifying the very, very largest asteroids,” Lu said. “The challenge that is in front of us today is for us, as a community, to figure out how to find the rest of them. How do we step up our game by a factor of 100? That’s our aspirational goal. Let’s do 100% better than we are doing now at finding these asteroids. That will give us a fighting chance. That will be what will allow us to be smarter than the dinosaurs,” he said.

Lu explained that between $40 and $50 million is spent globally per year to find and track asteroids, primarily through NASA but also through the European Space Agency (ESA) and private organizations. “All of these together are finding about 1000 near-Earth objects each year. When you stack it up against the million, it illustrates the challenge that we face,” he said, adding that the full cost to meet the challenge depends on how it is solved. “There is a recognition that we need to do something different than what we are doing today, more than what we are doing today. Likely, we are going to have to go to space-based detection systems rather than systems on the ground to have such a great increase” in detection.

Increasing Scientific and Public Concern

At the 3 December briefing, U.S. Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart said that scientific and public concern about potential hazards from near-Earth objects (NEOs) has increased substantially over the past several decades.

Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart at the briefing. Credit: Tim Trueman
Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart at the briefing. Credit: Tim Trueman

He said, for instance, that when the comet Shoemaker-­Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in 1994, the event led to congressional concerns and to Congress challenging NASA to discover most of the large potentially damaging NEOs. Schweickart, who is cofounder of the Sentinel Mission, added that the asteroid that entered Earth’s atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 was a more recent wake-up call that drew global attention. “Seven billion people basically suddenly realized that these objects really can do harm and hurt people,” he said.

In an interview with Eos, Schweickart said that as more people understand the issue and the threat from NEOs, governments are likely to be more responsive. However, he said that governments face several challenges, including whether nations would work together to nudge a potentially hazardous NEO from striking the Earth, particularly if doing so meant that the asteroid impact point would be dragged across a nation’s territory in an effort to deflect the asteroid away from Earth. “It’s a very difficult geopolitical decision to make,” he said. “It’s a binary decision, but it involves millions of people in terms of increasing their risk—hopefully temporarily increasing their risk—in order to eliminate the risk for everybody.”

Schweickart praised NASA for its work in detecting and tracking NEOs. NASA’s NEO Observations Program has identified more than 96% of asteroids that are 1 kilometer in diameter or larger, and the program’s current objective is to identify 90% of NEOs larger than 140 meters in diameter, according to the agency. NASA’s asteroid grand challenge, announced in June 2013, is focused on “finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do about them,” according to NASA.

However, Schweickart told Eos that planetary defense “is a public safety issue. This is not science.” He said that NASA’s charter does not include protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts. Therefore, he continued, “NASA doesn’t ask for budgetary allocations to do that job. Their budgets support science and exploration, and if they get a job to do some planetary defense like finding asteroids, they have to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul.’”

Where Do the Funds Come From?

A 2010 report by the NASA Advisory Council’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense, cochaired by Schweickart, found that a planetary defense program likely would require about $250–$300 million over the next decade for NASA to meet a congressionally mandated goal of identifying potentially hazardous asteroids that are 140 meters in diameter or larger, to execute selected missions, and to develop and demonstrate asteroid deflection capabilities. That cost would drop to about $50–$75 million annually after the search for potentially hazardous objects is substantially completed, according to the report.

Schweickart said the amount of money would be a small part of NASA’s budget “to solve a huge problem that the public literally cares about. I mean, I’d like to know whether there is an ocean under the ice in Europa, but I’d put that in the category of scientific mind candy. It’s great. I love it, and people do. They’re fascinated by it. But when it comes to that versus public safety and literally millions of people being killed, there’s just no question where the priority ought to be, and that’s the issue. But unless the White House and the Congress assign that responsibility to NASA, then you can’t really blame NASA. It’s not NASA’s fault. This is not a government priority, not only here in the United States but anywhere.”

Others at the briefing also focused on the potential hazards and expressed hope that accelerating the efforts to discover and track asteroids will make a difference in protecting the planet. “We have got a huge bridge to cross in order to become sufficiently aware of what’s coming at us [and] to be able to prepare,” said astrophysicist Brian May at the briefing.

May, who is lead guitarist for the rock music group Queen, said that despite the potential threat from NEOs, he saw signs of optimism, including the ESA Rosetta mission’s successful landing in November of a probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov–­Gerasimenko. “We now do have the technology probably to avert a disaster. The Rosetta mission has successfully demonstrated that humanity can successfully rendezvous with an asteroid. It’s then quite a short step to apply a little bit of correction to its orbit—supposing it is going to impact the Earth—to make sure it passes by without causing us a catastrophe.”

For more information, see http://asteroidday.org.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2014), Group calls for more focus on potentially hazardous asteroids, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(50), 475—476, doi:10.1002/2014EO500002.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.