Rocks in Our Head

What does it take to wake the world from our present slumber? Why does the barn always first have to be raided before we try closing the door? Why do we invent solutions after the disaster has occurred? And that is what we do all the time. Witness New Orleans. Witness “O” rings. Consider airline safety. Consider earthquake resistance. Almost always our new concepts come after a catastrophe rather than before. But these are all minor matters compared to the threat we are now facing on a daily basis. In a report to Congress just last week, our National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) admitted that it had no idea just how many potentially Earth-annihilating space objects, such as meteors and comets and the like, are really out there constituting an immediate threat to the planet.

Oh sure, NASA has some programs at work funding telescopic searches of the heavens to find foreign objects over a kilometer in diameter that cross Earth’s orbit. Indeed, there are an estimated 1,000 of such space rocks and about 75% have been neatly categorized and their orbits calculated with the conclusion made that none of these big stones at the moment is of the global threatening kind.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the other 25% have not been identified along with the almost 100% of objects under about 450 feet in diameter, and which we know are quite numerous. Supposedly this is because we have no money left to fund the search and then perform the calculations as to which of these smaller near-Earth-type objects pose a direct threat to impacting our planet.

David Morrison, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, is an expert on space impact hazards. He assures us that a meteor measuring only 450 feet in diameter still would cause major damage if it chose to strike the Earth. Yet he believes the chances of such a hit are rare — maybe one in 100,000 in our general lifetime. But, of course, who can know for certain?

Obviously not any country in this world, not even the United States where we have the most advanced space technology known to mankind. Why? Because right now we chose to spend our money funding other programs and yet what could be more important to our survival than not being hit on our collective head by an alien, but quite common, heavenly object or set of objects?

Just 13 years ago, in 1994, two scientists working independently of the government discovered a comet on a crash course to Earth. Fortunately for us, Jupiter interfered, becoming our blocking-back and absorbing the massive strikes of the twenty pieces of the Schumacher-Levy comet as it broke up and slammed into the giant planet. The impact was visible to us through telescopes on Earth and we were able to gage that these impacts were the equivalent in force to several modern thermo-nuclear bombs being exploded in one place at one time. Had the explosion happened just a few decades earlier we would not have had the equipment to first find the comet and second observe the impacts. In other words, we wouldn’t have known about the event at all.

Truth be told, if the comet had hit Earth none of us would be around now to remember it. To really understand the nature of a meteoric type impact on our planet one needs to visit Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona and see the amazing size of that hole. About 50,000 years ago when we now estimate that the impact happened, there is little doubt that it wiped out a lot of living things immediately and kicked up enough dust to block out the sun for a long period over a substantial part of the globe, thus killing off a lot more life.

We should now be long since past keeping our heads buried in the sand assuming an ignorance-is-bliss attitude. Since the reality is that we are no longer ignorant, we must become quite vigilant and thorough in our most important task: that of defending our globe. In the vital matter of world survival, we need to have our priorities in order. Since we know full well of the dangers posed by objects in space, we should make it a very high priority to know what and where the objects are and what the likelihood is of them hitting into us. That means all of them, not some of them.

Truly, this issue is more pressing than any other inconvenient or convenient truth. And yet our government says it doesn’t have the money to check out all the rocks.

After identification must come a program of defense. What do we do about an asteroid headed our way? Sounding a civil defense warning horn won’t cut it. We shall need to have some devices at hand to remove the threat. A star wars type defense shield is surely one concept. Amazing really that Ronald Reagan seemed most likely to know of it decades ago. No doubt there are many more possible ideas for space object defense, both nuclear and non-nuclear in scope. If we put a little more time and effort into the cause we would no doubt in our great American way find creative solutions to our problems.

Yet, at the moment, America doesn’t really seem to care. We are more concerned with obviously important matters like our foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what we shall do about the increasing dangers in Iran and North Korea. No doubt we should be vitally concerned and involved in these international matters. Yet just below these concerns on our totem pole of issues, perhaps we should lower stuff like complex tax debates, the “right” to gay marriages, decisions on how Washington D.C. should look in fifty years, increasing the number of lotteries and the like, and raise up the ladder of importance the most important issue of all: that of our collective survival which is still imperiled most by an errant piece of space junk slamming into us.

Maybe we could check off a $1.00 box on our income tax saying we would like the money to go to our imminent survival as opposed to who should buy more advertisements to promote their presidential campaigns. Yet for now, we chose apparently to just sleep while the asteroid world rocks on.