“As the CEO of the Planetary Society, I can tell you, there is one preventable natural disaster, and that’s an asteroid. If we got hit by a 50 meter object, 1 kilometer object — that’s it, okay? That’s CTRL+ALT+DELETE for civilization. I mean, that’s over. And we are the first generations of humans that have the ability to do something about it.”
— Bill Nye (excerpted from the film 'Fight for Space', speaking on the consequences of an underfunded space program, and why we must care about our “place in space”)
A very timely message for humanity (especially politicians occupying positions in Congress) during a period in history where we’ve become gravely aware of the cosmic shooting gallery we exist amidst.
The above image (provided by the B612 Foundation) is a computer simulation of all known asteroids and their trajectories (watch here). Currently, there is no comprehensive map of our inner solar system which show absolute positions and trajectories of asteroids that might threaten Earth. As a collective species, we are essentially orbiting blind around the solar system.
In terms of “not having enough money" to simultaneously improve the quality of life for everyone, perpetuate a thriving economy, transition into a society fueled by hydrogen/electricity/overall renewable energy, and explore space, these topics are not mutually exclusive. We can, and have, worked on all of these at the same time by performing science pertinent to every single aspect of our lives. And when politicians assert that we don’t have the money, I’ll paraphrase a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:
“It’s not that you don’t have the money. It’s that the distribution of money that you’re spending is warped in some way, that you’re removing the very thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow. So, I’m worried the decisions Congress makes doesn’t factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow. Tomorrow (metaphoric, tomorrow) is gone. They’re playing for the quarterly report, they’re playing for the next election cycle, and that is mortgaging the actual future of this nation.”
Indeed, the future being mortgaged is not simply of one nation, but the global collective of life on this planet.
Our lives are dependent upon modern technologies developed throughout the “space age” whereby we realized very quickly how necessary activity in space would become in our lives moving forward. And now, those same technologies have become expanded upon into various other fields of science and discovery. One of those areas of curiosity happens to be the identification of Near-Earth Objects and Potentially Harmful Asteroids.
What type of object qualifies as potentially dangerous?
(1) If it crosses the Earth’s orbit at a distance less than 0.05 AU (astronomical units, which, for reference, 1 AU = the distance from the Earth to the sun); (2) If such an object exceeds 100-150 meters in diameter. An object that meets these criteria are large enough to cause a tsunami if striking the ocean, and cause unprecedented destruction upon hitting land.
Today — Monday, January 26, 2015 — marks the interaction of such an object. Asteroid 2004 BL86 will pass by us at 3x the distance from the Earth to the moon (1.2 million kilometers), measuring as large as 5 football fields.
Although this particular asteroid doesn’t pose us any threat, the reality is, we’re blindsided regularly by objects we never saw coming due to our lack of proper visibility in space. On February 15, 2013, we were reminded of this when a 500 kiloton explosion rocked the Russian town of Chelyabinsk, injuring over 1,500 people.
So, how much do we know about Asteroid 2004 BL86?
It was discovered in 2004 (hence the name) by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program (LINEAR) which led in asteroid discoveries from 1998-2005 until it was overtaken by the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), and Asteroid 2004 BL86 orbits the sun every 1.84 years. That’s it.
To provide a sense of how blind we are when it comes to asteroids of this or any magnitude intersecting Earth’s orbit, radar astronomer Lance Benne said,
“When we get our radar data back from the flyby, we will have our first detailed images. At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”
Of course, terrestrial observatories will be collecting data on the asteroid as it passes by, but what about the next? Or the ones out there which may have Earth in its sights that we still haven’t catalogued? What are we doing about this?
Right now, NASA has a mission proposal under development called the Near-Earth-Object Camera (NEOCam). The other main effort toward asteroid discovery, characterization, and tracking is the B612 Foundation (a privately funded organization led by astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu), whose Sentinel Mission is slated to launch between 2017-2018.
Related: Watch Ed Lu explain the vital role B612 Foundation plays on our future in this video that plays at Arizona’s ‘Meteor Crater’.
However, there’s good news and bad news.
A portion of NASA’s budget is being appropriated to developing the technology for NEOCam, which will assess the present-day risk of NEO impact, study the origin/destinies of our solar system’s asteroids, and designate suitable NEO targets for human/robotic exploration. That’s good news.
NASA has many other things to do, such as analyzing the health of the entire biosphere and all the living inhabitants it supports, and NASA’s budget is not sufficient enough to do everything it needs to do AND protect the planet from asteroid threats.
That’s, obviously, the bad news.
As for the B612 Foundation, here’s the good news: Sentinel is on track to be the first privately-funded deep space mission ever launched, courtesy of Ball Aerospace aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Placed into a Venus-like orbit, Sentinel will have its back to the sun, Sentinel will use its infrared optics to discover 20,000+ asteroids within the first month of operation — more than the combined effort of telescopes in the last 30 years. Within 6.5 years, Sentinel will follow trajectories of more than 90% of asteroids larger than 140 meters.
The bad news: B612 Foundation is privately funded. Think on this. Here’s a mission which will change the course of history for generations to come, relying on private funding. Why?
NASA - if robustly funded - would be more than capable to orchestrate fleets of spacecraft and exploration missions all over deep space, inventing new technologies along the way, while demanding a dynamic work force of scientifically literate crew members to imagine, construct, implement, and maintain these space programs far into the future. This kind of demand calls for a strong STEM education which would usher in a society of dreamers and innovators emboldened with a passion to shape and secure the longevity of life from here to worlds beyond Earth.
Among other topics, the preservation of our species, and the biodiversity of life on Earth is a core element we communicate in the film. We urge your support by sharing, promoting, and backing our Kickstarter campaign to finalize post-production funds and finish this film for the world to see.
Passing bills for short term gain, pandering to corporations, and serving the needs of a few to appeal to a constituency are not in the best interests of us today, and certainly do not have future generations in mind. We must demand more from ourselves, our Congresspeople, and our space program.
Support the #FightforSpace.