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Bruce BettsMay 24, 2013

Planetary Defense Conference 2013 Part 1

State of Research and Videos to Watch

Every two years, The Planetary Society co-sponsors the International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference.  This conference brings to together the world’s experts in all aspects of defending the world from asteroid and comet impact.  This April, it was held in Flagstaff, Arizona, near the world’s best preserved large impact crater, Meteor Crater.  Several of our staff attended, and we also hosted a public evening.  

This is the first of three blogs (in addition to one I wrote during the conference) from me about the conference.  In this entry, I want to give you some thoughts on the summary state of research in this field based on the conference, and then tell you about some of the special activities during the conference, and in the process point you to lots of online resources related to the conference including audio and video.  In the next two blog entries, coming in the next few days, I will focus on parts of the conference related to two Planetary Society projects, the Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants [you can now find blog part 2 here], and lab experiments exploring the Laser Bees asteroid deflection technique.

Rough Summary of the State of Research

This conference is unique because it brings together experts in all aspects of the Near Earth Object (NEO) threat.  Here are some of the topics covered during the conference and my attempts at ridiculously short summaries of the status of those topics.

Discovering and Tracking NEOs: we’ve found most of the dinosaur killer and species killer sized objects, but only relatively small percentages the smaller stuff – including those objects capable of regional disaster, but we are looking more and getting better.

Physical Characterization: we are early in the process of getting physical data about NEOs, but things are improving, from rotation rates to learning if a give asteroid is really a binary pair to the more challenging determination whether a given asteroid is a fluff ball or solid rock.

Mitigation (deflection or disruption) techniques: there are a variety, none are well tested, none are ready at a moment’s notice, and all sound super cool (e.g., nukes, kinetic impactors, laser ablation, Bruce Willis, gravity tractors, etc.)

Impact effects: bad to extremely bad things happens when objects hit Earth at many kilometers per second; of course, the learning and preparing is in the details which we are learning more about, from blast effects to tsunamis.

Communicating about the NEO threat: after the Chelyabinsk impact in Russia and the 2012 DA14 flyby, both on Feb. 15, 2013, it is somewhat easier to get people to take the threat seriously, but still challenging, especially to communicate the details and to free up the resources needed.

Disaster management: we may have little warning of impending impact, making evacuation something that must be considered, or no warning – in which case it becomes disaster relief.  This conference has really helped jump start discussions with the disaster management community

As I re-read my brief summaries, they do not very encouraging, a lot of unknowns still out there.  We definitely need to put more resources to prevent the only preventable natural disaster.  But, having attended these conferences for about a decade, it is clear we are making a lot of progress, huge progress compared to the past, in all these areas.  We need to keep it up.

Part of the conference was a trip to Meteor Crater, the world’s best preserved impact crater.  Standing next to a hole in the ground that is over 1 km in diameter and still exists 50,000 years after the impact makes it hard to not take the threat seriously.  Big impacts are rare, but they sure are ugly when they happen.

Public Night, Tabletop Exercises, and International Panel

Along with NASA and Northern Arizona University, The Planetary Society hosted a public night during the conference that was attended by a packed house of 900.  I had fun being the MC, and we had great talks by Geoff Notkin from the TV series Meteorite Men sharing stories of meteorite hunting around the globe, and our own Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye sharing the passion, beauty, and joy of space, and reflecting on NEOs.  We also had a great panel of professionals in the field with Bill Nye and Planetary Radio host Mat Kaplan.  I also announced our new Shoemaker NEO Grant winners (more in the next blog on that).  You can find video of the entire public night here

The last day of the conference, we had an emergency response “tabletop exercise.”  I was thinking it would be an Avalon Hill game or Dungeons and Dragons, but turns out that wasn’t quite it.  There was some analogy, since basically a select group acted as Dungeon Masters and provided information about a (fictitious) monster asteroid possibly headed for Earth.  New information was periodically given as simulated time marched along.  Groups tried to figure out what to do from characterizing the asteroid, to determining whether to launch deflection missions, to preparing for impact.  Bottom line: France is glad it was only an exercise.  It also gave me an idea of a new great impact mitigation technique: use gelatinous cubes.

Mat Kaplan produced three Planetary Radio shows from the conference, including excerpts from the public night, interviews with Laser Bees's Alison Gibbings, and legendary comet and asteroid discoverer Carolyn Shoemaker and interviews and excerpts from several people during the tabletop exercise.

I also was part of a panel put on by NEOShield, a European-led consortium looking into various aspects of the NEO threat.  The panel discussed international cooperation with regards to NEOs and included former astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu as well as scientists Alan Harris, David Morrison, and Detlef Koschny.  Video of the panel is here.  

You can also find a schedule of conference talks and video of all the presentations from the conference.

Continue to Planetary Defense Conference blog part 2.

Read more: near-Earth asteroids, meteorites, meteors, comets, Earth impact hazard, asteroids, Planetary Radio, Planetary Society Events, Planetary Society Video, Shoemaker NEO Grants, Bill Nye

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
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