In 2013, a small 70-meter asteroid exploded over the town of Chelyabinsk and injured 3000 people from flying glass. Had this asteroid exploded a few hours earlier over New York City, the flying glass hazard would have been lethal for thousands of people, sending thousands more into the emergency rooms of hospitals for critical-care treatment. Of all the practical benefits of space exploration, it is hard to argue that asteroid investigations are not a high priority above dreams of colonization of the moon and Mars.
So why is it that the only NASA mission to actually try a simple method to adjust the orbit of an asteroid cannot seem to garner much support?
There has been much debate over the next step in human exploration: whether to go back to the moon or take the harder path to Mars. The later goal has been much favored, and for the last decade or so, NASA has developed a step-by-step Journey to Mars approach for doing this, beginning with the development of the SLS launch vehicle, and the testing out of many necessary systems, technologies and strategies to support astronauts making this trip, both quickly and safely. Along with numerous Mars mapping and rover missions now in progress or soon to be launched, there are also technology development missions to test out such things as solar-electric ‘ion’ propulsion systems.
One of these test-bed missions with significant scientific returns is the Asteroid Redirect Mission to be launched in ca 2021 for a cost of about $1.4 billion. NASA’s first-ever robotic mission will visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a multi-ton boulder from its surface, and use it in an enhanced gravity tractor asteroid deflection demonstration. The spacecraft will then redirect the multi-ton boulder into a stable orbit around the moon, where astronauts will explore it and return with samples in the mid-2020s.
But all is not well for ARM.
ARM was proposed in 2010 during the Obama Administration as an alternative to the canceled Constellation Program proposed by the Bush Administration, so with the new GOP-dominated administration set on dismantling all of the Obama Administrations’ legacy work, there is much incentive to eliminate it for political reasons alone.
Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the HCSST, and Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the HSST space subcommittee reportedly feel that the incoming Trump administration should be “unencumbered” by decisions made by the current one — like what they want to do with the ACA . They claim to have access to “honest assessments” of ARM’s value rather than “farcical studies scoped to produce a predetermined outcome.” The House’s version of the 2017 FY appropriations bill includes wording that would force NASA to fully defund the ARM program. Furthermore, Smith and Babin wrote, “the next Administration may find merit in some, if not all, of the components of ARM, and continue the program; however, that decision should be made after a full and fair review based on the merits of the program and in the context of a larger exploration and science strategy.” Similar arguments will no doubt be used to cancel climate change research, which has also been deemed politically biased and unscientific by the current, incoming administration.
But ARM is no ordinary ‘exploration and science’ space mission, even absent its unique ability to test the first high-power ion engines for interplanetary travel, and retrieve a large, pristine multi-ton asteroid sample. All other NASA missions have certainly demonstrated their substantial scientific returns, and this is often the key justification that allows them to proceed. Mission technology also affords unique tech spinoff opportunities in the commercial sector that makes the US aerospace industrial base very happy to participate. But these returns all seem rather abstract, and for the person-on-the-street rather hard to appreciate.
For decades, astronomers have been discovering and tracking 100s of thousands of asteroids. We live in an interplanetary shooting gallery, where some 15,000 Near Earth Objects have already been discovered, and 30 new ones added every week. NEOs, by the way, are asteroids that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit. These asteroids measure 1 kilometer or more, and statistically over 90% of this population has now been identified. But only 27% of those 140 meters or larger have been discovered. Once their orbits are determined, we can make predictions about which ones will pose an danger to Earth.
Currently there are 1,752 potentially hazardous asteroids that come within 5 million miles of Earth (20 times Earth-moon distance). There are none predicted to impact Earth in the next 100 years. But new ones are found every week, and between now and February 2017, one object called 2016YJ about 30 meters across will pass within 1.2 lunar distances of Earth. The list of closest approaches in 2016 is quite exciting to look through The object 2016 QA2 discovered in 2016 in the nick of time, was about 70 meters across and came within 53,000 miles of Earth. Upon impact, it would have been an event similar to Chelyabinsk. Even larger, and far more troubling very close encounters have been predicted for the 325-meter asteroid Apophis in 2029, and the 1-kilometer asteroid 2001WN5 in 2028 and well within the man-made satellite cloud that surrounds Earth.
The first successful forecast of an impact event was made on 6 October 2008 when the asteroid 2008 TC3 was discovered. It was calculated that it would hit the Earth only 21 hours later. Luckily it had a diameter of only three meters and did not cause any damage. Since then, some stony remnants of the asteroid have been found. But this object could just as easily have been a 100-meter object exploding over New York City or London, with devastating consequences.
So in terms of planetary defense, asteroids are a dramatically important hazard we need to study. For some asteroids, we may have as little as a year to decide what to do. Although many mitigation strategies have been proposed, none have actually been tested! We need to test as many different orbit-changing strategies as we can before the asteroid with Earth’s name written on it is discovered.
Honestly, what more practical benefit can there be for a NASA mission than to materially protect Earth and our safety?
Check back here on Thursday, January 5 for the next installment!