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Bruce BettsApril 13, 2015

Planetary Defense Conference: Steps to Prevent Asteroid Impact

Planetary Defense has been a fundamental focus of The Planetary Society since shortly after its founding 35 years ago. We continue the tradition, and are ramping up our efforts even more. I, and several other Planetary Society staff, are attending the 2015 IAA Planetary Defense Conference (PDC) this week in Frascati, Italy, outside of Rome at ESRIN (European Space Research Institute), a European Space Agency facility. The PDC is held every two years and brings together the world’s experts on all aspects of the asteroid threat to Earth. I find it to be one of the most effective conferences of any I attend, which is why I am particularly pleased that The Planetary Society is a primary sponsor of the conference. I also have served on the organizing committee and it is nice to see it all come to fruition.

What is particularly effective about the conference is that it focuses on one overall issue, while covering all aspects of the problem. I like to describe dealing with the asteroid threat to Earth that there are 5 issues we need to address to prevent asteroid impact and all five are being covered here:

1. Find potentially threatening asteroids and comets. Obviously, this is the key first step.

2. Track them. It doesn’t do any good to know there is an asteroid out there unless we have enough position data on it to craft a good orbit for it, and see if that orbit intersects with Earth in the future.

3. Characterize them. We need to gather information about the asteroids, both to understand the statistics and the characteristics of the entire population of near Earth asteroids, but also to understand individual asteroids. For example, 10 to 20 percent of near Earth asteroids are actually binary pairs, not individual asteroids. If one ever had to deflect one of these off an Earth path, obviously it would be critical to know if you are deflecting one or two.  Characterization also gives things like spin rate, and compositional information. Most is done from the ground, some by our Shoemaker Grant Winners, but some is done up close and personal by missions such as the past NASA Shoemaker NEAR and Japanese Hayabusa missions, and the encounters coming up, including NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and Japan’s Hayabusa2. There are other interesting missions in planning stages, some of which will be discussed at this conference.

4. Deflect them. This is a broad category covering development and eventual testing of various methods that might be used to deflect a dangerous asteroid when we find one. These techniques range from passive gravitational tractors, all the way to nuclear deflections, with a lot in between including kinetic impactors (slam into the asteroid with one or more spacecraft), and the Planetary Society supported Laser Bees concept to use spacecraft with lasers to vaporize surface rock on an asteroid, creating jets that will push the asteroid to a different orbit.

5. Internationally coordinate and educate. This includes a variety of activities from coordinating observations, to planning for how countries will work together when deflection is needed, to disaster preparedness for the cases where we get surprised by an impact, or where we only have hours, days, or weeks until impact. This topic also includes educating the public about the asteroid threat, and building support for doing something about it. These are two areas The Planetary Society is heavily involved with, and our Director of Communications, Erin Greeson, and I will present a paper here about some of our education and communication efforts.

Through our various programs, The Planetary Society is active in each of these steps. Our Shoemaker NEO Grant program is effective at helping, particularly with steps 2 and 3. I am very excited that I’ll announce our latest winners at the Wednesday April 15 evening public event that The Planetary Society is hosting at an Italian Space Agency (ASI) facility. I’ll post a blog after that to let everyone know about the new deserving winners who will receive grants to improve their observatories for finding, tracking, and characterizing near Earth asteroids. At the Public Event, Mat Kaplan will be hosting Planetary Radio live with a host of great guests to talk about the asteroid threat and what is being done about it. Mat will produce radio shows from that event and other aspects of the PDC in the coming weeks.

Also here in Frascati is our video guru Merc Boyan, getting help from CaLisa Lee. We’ll be working to produce new videos coming out of the conference, and we may even shoot some Random Space Fact videos here in Italy. If you are interested in watching the conference live stream provided by ESA, you can find it here. Also here in Frascati is Planetary Society volunteer network manager Kate Howells. She coordinates our worldwide network of volunteer leaders and will present about that and related topics here at the conference.

Should we lose sleep worrying about asteroid impact? No, because they don’t happen often. But, they do happen. And they will continue to happen, unless we prevent them. And, as the only large scale natural disaster we can prevent if we put the effort in, wouldn’t it be awfully irresponsible not to?

Read more: near-Earth asteroids, Planetary Society Projects, Earth impact hazard, asteroids, events and announcements, explaining science, conference report

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Bruce Betts

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