In a world where climate change is everywhere under discussion, its causes pondered and its effects debated as political fodder, I suppose it makes sense that The Economist would look at the danger posed by Earth-crossing asteroids in the same context. Thus the sub-title of its recent story on the subject: “The ultimate environmental catastrophe.” Which, of course, an asteroid impact could well be, particularly if large enough or placed in a highly populated area.
I’ve subscribed to The Economist off and on for decades, always admiring its clarity and style. The magazine handles this subject with skill, noting how quickly the living ecology of Earth scrubs away the tell-tale signs of impact craters, citing the Moon as a counter-example, and going on to note that the Earth Impact Database in Canada can nonetheless identify more than 170 such craters. And it reminds us of NASA’s scientist David Morrison’s statement that a large meteorite strike is the only known natural disaster that could put civilization itself at risk.
How the press presents complicated stories to the public has consequences on the terms of subsequent debate. The current article runs through the options for changing the orbit of dangerous objects, ranging from nuclear weapons to nearby spacecraft using their tiny gravitational effects to move the asteroid gradually off course. Worthy of greater emphasis, in my opinion, is the amount of time the latter (more practical) method would need to accomplish its work. Whatever the method, we have to pick the danger up early, allowing ourselves an adequate window to muster the resources needed.
We also have to have the infrastructure in space to do what needs to be done, whatever course we choose. Instead, we are closing down options here on Earth. The Arecibo radar installation is under immediate threat of de-funding, a potentially devastating loss to our ability to find and catalog Earth-crossing objects. Meanwhile, other than the all too occasional story, the media focus instead on useful scandals that draw viewers and readers. Lisa Nowak and her tortured love affairs. Drunken astronauts being rocketed into space. All are certain to drive ratings up.
As to the latter, I’ll just say this. If I were about to board a craft that would muscle me into orbit using two solid-state boosters, neither of which could be throttled back or shut-down once lit, I would demand more than a single drink before I walked to the launch gantry. And as for the press, let’s hope for more articles that remind the public of the stakes involved in asteroid collision. We may or may not have time to avoid another Tunguska, but the need for a flexible space-based response to the danger should be kept front and center. We don’t need alarmism, but we do need a thoughtful, prepared public that understands the issues.