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Louis D. FriedmanFebruary 19, 2013

Vermin of the Sky

The Society's Long History with Asteroids

“Vermin of the sky,” was the phrase many astronomers attributed to asteroids as recently as the 1970s and 1980s.  They were seen as little objects that got in the way of serious astronomy.  NASA had little interest in them, and science funding organizations ignored them completely.  Their rejection by the establishment was one reason for The Planetary Society getting into the act as advocates for observations and missions and raising funds from our membership for the few astronomers who were conducting observing programs.  Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and Eleanor Helin were among the few.  This work continues today with our Gene Shoemaker grants.  Another reason for our early advocacy of asteroid observations was the growing acceptance of a previously sneered at hypothesis:  that asteroid impacts had caused mass extinction of species on Earth.  They are, we now know, critical players in the evolution of life.

The events of last week – both the well-predicted close flyby of Earth by a 130,000 metric ton asteroid and the surprise impact on Earth of a 7000 ton object – may cause us to be reclassify asteroids from vermin to beasts.  Carl Sagan first brought the Society into the Planetary Defense discussions back in the 1980s working on both the astronomical and defense implications.  We worked closely with individuals and groups seeking to understand the probabilities of impact and how to deal with them.  We also participated in and helped organize conferences about the subject.

One such conference was, by some amazing prescient coincidence, located in the city of Chelyabinsk in 1991. It was then a closed (secret) Soviet city dedicated to the development of nuclear weapons.  With the end of the Cold War many of the nuclear weapons scientists wanted to turn their attention to planetary defense from asteroids (a nuclear weapon being a principal option for deflection.)  One of those nuclear scientists was Edward Teller, father of the US hydrogen bomb.  Going with him (we were seven Americans at a meeting with 200 Soviets) to this conference in deep, remote western Siberia a few short months after the end of the Soviet Union was certainly one of the most memorable trips of my life.  Standing with him as he posed for pictures with his hand on the Soviet big 75 megaton bomb was quite a moment.  I will also never forget going for a run in Chelyabinsk on my own one morning and being stopped by a Soviet military security attaché asking “why did you leave your hotel – it is not allowed.”  I told him “things are changing here,” but still I was escorted back to my room.

Evidence mounted that species, notably the dinosaurs, were wiped out by an asteroid or comet impact.  Under the leadership of JPL scientists Adriana Ocampo and Kevin Pope we conducted expeditions with scientists and citizen volunteers to Italy and Belize finding evidence of that impact.  Walter Alvarez, one of the originators of the theory of dinosaur-extinction from asteroid impact, participated with us.

Asteroid science now spans many disciplines and many interests.  So much so it is now the next stop for human exploration.  President Obama stated that visiting a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) was an interim objective on the way to Mars, and that it should be accomplished by 2025. It turns out that beyond current planned capability and current level of funding (or even a modestly boosted one).  But a very clever idea which we helped to start is now receiving serious attention as a way to make it happen.  Marco Tantardini, then an Italian student intern at the Society, did some early work with this concept while he was working with us and this led to me working with colleagues at JPL and Caltech to create a successful proposal to the Caltech Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) for a study and workshops.  It is another private funding contribution helping space exploration.

The study found that we could move a small asteroid (1/3 to 1/2 the size of the Chelyabinsk one) to the vicinity of the Moon where it can be reached by the American stable of launch vehicles:  Atlas V, Delta-IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, SLS, and planned crew capsules.  Early studies are promising (although NASA will have to dig deeper and confirm them) and show that a solar electric propelled mission to tow the small (e.g. 500 ton) asteroid could be launched by 2017 and put the asteroid in place by 2025 is the only way that we can meet the President's goal.

More importantly, it is the only way to have our human space program do something exciting, interesting and scientific in the foreseeable future.  Imagine a robotic mission moving a celestial object (albeit a small one) to create stepping stones for human into the solar system.  This project should engage popular interest throughout the world. (Working on this mission development with KISS is, by the way, is my chief activity at the moment).

Asteroid science is now important science, asteroid exploration is now a human and robotic mission goal, and ever newer:  it is now a commercial (private-interest) goal.  Three entrepreneurial companies have been formed in the last year with asteroid mission targets.   Two want to go to them and investigate mining their resources:  Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries; and one the B612 Foundation (with whom the Society has long cooperated) want to build a space telescope to observe potentially threatening objects that could impact the Earth.  B612 principals are astronauts Rusty Schweikart, Ed Lu and Tom Jones.  They have led the Association of Space Explorers effort for international cooperation and UN consideration of the legal and political ramifications of deflecting an asteroid.  (The Society is also part of the UN Committee considering the subject).

It’s amazing to contemplate the range of possibilities from current efforts: untold wealth being mined from asteroid resources, widespread devastation and loss of life from an impact, or the revitalization of human exploration taking the first steps beyond the Moon.  Whatever actually comes to fruition we will learn and accomplish a lot.  The Society has been there since before the beginning and helped to make it all happen.

Read more: history, personal stories, Planetary Society History, Planetary Society Projects, Earth impact hazard, near-Earth asteroids

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Louis D. Friedman

Board of Directors for The Planetary Society
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