Asteroids in our Future

by Paul Gilster on June 27, 2013

NASA has released an Asteroid Initiative Request for Information on the issue of asteroid retrieval. It’s an interesting document both in its audience — the agency is making a point about soliciting comments not only from academics, scientists and engineers but the general public — but also because of the issues it explores. Being sought are ideas on how best to capture an asteroid, land an astronaut on one, and change its orbit, not necessarily in that order. The Los Angeles Times quotes NASA associate director Robert Lightfoot on the public component of NASA’s initiative:

“Too often, by the time we present a mission to the public, it has already been baked, and there’s not much we can change. This is your chance to present your ideas to us before the mission is baked.”

If you’re interested in contributing, move quickly, for the deadline for responses is July 18, with a workshop to follow in September.

The creation of a Solar System-wide infrastructure will necessarily precede any interstellar probes, if only because the methods we are studying to make such a probe happen all involve large construction projects in interplanetary space and resource retrieval from places as far away as the gas giants. But making the early infrastructure viable could well be the result of asteroid activities through companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, or whoever manages to sustain an economic model for exploiting these interesting objects.

Asteroids are compelling targets for mining everything from gold, iron, nickel and platinum to water that can be extracted to support human settlements. But the case for developing our asteroid capabilities is also wrapped up in planetary defense, and it’s interesting to see this section of the NASA RFI:

Asteroid Deflection Demonstration: NASA is interested in concepts for deflecting the trajectory of an asteroid using the robotic Asteroid Redirection Vehicle (ARV) that would be effective against objects large enough to do significant damage at the Earth’s surface should they impact (i.e. > 100 meters in size). These demonstrations could include but [are] not limited to: a. Use of the ARV to demonstrate a slow push trajectory modification on a larger asteroid. b. Use of the ARV to demonstrate a “gravity tractor” technique on an asteroid. c. Use of ARV instrumentation for investigations useful to planetary defense (e.g. sub-surface penetrating imaging) d. Use of deployables from the ARV to demonstrate techniques useful to planetary defense (e.g. deployment of a stand alone transponder for continued tracking of the asteroid over a longer period of time).

10,000 NEOs and Counting

All of this is wrapped up inside the larger agency effort to capture and de-spin an asteroid and redirect it into translunar space, as described in the document. Just after the release of the NASA Request for Information on June 18, we learned that the 10,000th near-Earth object, asteroid 2013 MZ5, was detected by the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope in Hawaii. Near-Earth objects (NEOs) can approach the Earth’s orbital distance within 45 million kilometers. Known NEOs are as large as 40 kilometers (1036 Ganymed) or as small as a meter in diameter. Asteroid 2013 MZ5 turns out to be about 300 meters across and is not in an orbit that is considered hazardous.

neo20130624-640 (2)

Image: Asteroid 2013 MZ5 as seen by the University of Hawaii’s PanSTARR-1 telescope. In this animated gif, the asteroid moves relative to a fixed background of stars. Asteroid 2013 MZ5 is in the right of the first image, towards the top, moving diagonally left/down. Credit: PS-1/UH.

I’ve been reading Don Yeomans’ book Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us (Princeton University Press, 2012), an excellent overview of the field that I’ll be reviewing here in coming weeks. In this JPL news release Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL, comments on the overall effort to track down NEOs:

“The first near-Earth object was discovered in 1898. Over the next hundred years, only about 500 had been found. But then, with the advent of NASA’s NEO Observations program in 1998, we’ve been racking them up ever since. And with new, more capable systems coming on line, we are learning even more about where the NEOs are currently in our solar system, and where they will be in the future.”

A glimpse of that future is provided by Lindley Johnson, who is part of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program. Johnson notes the significance of finding the 10,000th NEO but adds “…there are at least 10 times that many more to be found before we can be assured we will have found any and all that could impact and do significant harm to the citizens of Earth.” So we keep looking. NASA expects there are about 15,000 NEOs that are 140 meters in size and more than a million that reach 30 meters. The latter is a figure the agency cites as being the minimum size needed to cause ‘significant devastation’ in populated areas.

The news release has this to say about the NEOs we’ve already discovered:

Of the 10,000 discoveries, roughly 10 percent are larger than six-tenths of a mile (one kilometer) in size – roughly the size that could produce global consequences should one impact the Earth. However, the NASA NEOO program has found that none of these larger NEOs currently pose an impact threat and probably only a few dozen more of these large NEOs remain undiscovered.

The Near-Earth Object Observations Program is indeed, as Yeomans says, ‘racking them up.’ Working through the Catalina Sky Survey, the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS survey and MIT’s LINEAR survey, NEOs are being discovered at a rate of about 1,000 per year. All observations flow to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge MA in an effort that is clearly making progress on finding and cataloging objects. We now need to emphasize the effort to study the kind of deflection and trajectory-altering techniques NASA describes in the new RFI.

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{ 20 comments }

JoeP June 27, 2013 at 10:28

OK, I just had a paranoid thought come to mind…imagine a doomsday cultist hacker group that gained control of an asteroid; especially without being detected for a period of time, and put one on a collision course with Earth.

What are the chances of getting hit by an extinction-level impactor via natural events (say once every 10,000,000 years — pretty darn low) as compared by some madmen taking eventual control of a large object and doing that to Earth intentionally?

A few scientists already view humanity as a disease. Or a political or environmental group that wants to wipe out the major governments and most people of the planet and start over. A lot of ways to rationalize such destruction.

ljk June 27, 2013 at 10:38

NASA changed the acronym of its planetoid retrieval mission in order to avoid being captured by Congressional naysayers:

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2318/1

NASA tried the same trick with its fledgling SETI program in 1992, only to watch it get defunded by senators who associated it with “little green men” less than one year later:

http://history.nasa.gov/garber.pdf

Related article:

http://nasawatch.com/archives/2013/06/space-developme.html

Space corporations may be the only way we ever get a true permanent foothold in space. But it will come at a price, with science being among them, for corporati0ns will use it as a tool to make themselves richer rather than for the sake of increasing human knowledge.

We also better get used to more than a few human deaths as we build our future in the heavens, along with many of those who venture into the Final Frontier being anything but the image of noble astronauts and cosmonauts of the early days.

Humans are always messy like that. I wonder if that is the way of higher intelligences who reach out beyond their home worlds everywhere?

Jer June 27, 2013 at 10:57

For some reason there have been a vast number of articles/posts lately on ‘beyond LEO’ exploration being overwhelmingly undertaken by private corporations – with Mars and asteroids being front and centre. At first glance, seems like an efficient and near tax-free way of placing a high-risk enterprise onto others without the burden of government fluff (excess or risk-aversion for lack of a better word)(for better or worse). But what are we losing by allowing corporations to spearhead, for example, asteroid uses? If we compare exploiting asteroids to uncovering mineral or oil deposits on earth, we are in for a lot of privacy, findings mis-direction, and just blatant disinterest in providing full disclosure on asteroids’ potential. I can’t think of anything more damning to science than having corporations refuse and even obstruct further research on asteroid composition – especially the easy to reach subjects. We’re talking vast sums of money, both spent and potentially earnable in the future. Without a ‘high seas’ understanding, even future travel or movement near an asteroid (short of saving the earth) could be obstructed by dollar-struck private interests. Perhaps some of the foundations interested in opening up Space, like those advocated by this blog, may want to explore a legal advisory role/status with governments.

ljk June 27, 2013 at 14:04

PayPal, SETI Institute, Buzz Aldrin and Space Leaders Launch PayPal Galactic

BusinessWire · June 27, 2013 | Last Updated: June 27, 2013 10:18 AM ET

SETI INSTITUTE — PayPal today announced the launch of PayPal Galactic, an initiative that addresses the issues to help make universal space payments a reality. PayPal Galactic brings together leaders in the scientific community, including the SETI Institute and Space Tourism Society, to prepare and support the future of space commerce.

The announcement with PayPal President David Marcus and astronaut and author Buzz Aldrin will take place June 27 at 9 am PDT at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. The event will be live streamed at http://www.paypal-galactic.com and will be available on demand at 4pm PDT the same day on the site. A video explaining the initiative is available in HD and standard definition for downloading and sharing immediately at:

http://www.paypal-galactic.com

Full article here:

http://www.financialpost.com/markets/news/PayPal+SETI+Institute+Buzz+Aldrin+Space+Leaders+Launch+PayPal+Galactic/8586716/story.html

Space.com’s version of this news story has some fanciful space artwork:

http://www.space.com/21739-paypal-galactic-seti-space-tourism-payment.html

ljk June 27, 2013 at 15:00

Jer said on June 27, 2013 at 10:57:

“Perhaps some of the foundations interested in opening up Space, like those advocated by this blog, may want to explore a legal advisory role/status with governments.”

You made some very good and important points, Jer. I almost feel like it is a darned if you do, darned if you don’t situation when it comes to whether government agencies or private enterprise should be our key to permanent space presence. Both are the only institutions with enough money, resources, and clout to get the jobs done, but both also have major issues that could leave us high and dry, literally.

Some relevant links:

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2305/1

http://www.iislweb.org/

http://www.spacelaw.olemiss.edu/jsl/index.html

http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/space_law_is_taking_off/

Dmitri June 27, 2013 at 18:38

Extraordinary coincidence. Just watched Roscosmos news bulletin on SS-Satan ICBM, which is now proposed to be reassigned for small diameter collision course NEO destroyer. The advantage of Satan is its deployment speed – launch can be primed in 5-6h from NEO detection. Russians don’t specify the size of NEO or any other detail. Just they have too many them around and has been also considered to use for launching small stallelites to space. Satan needs small rearrangements in systems to become a NEO destroyer.

Deployment and launch of Satan. Starts at the right segment. For me it’s first time to see its launching.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHQi2llxIOE&t=2m13s

NS June 27, 2013 at 21:22

I favor governments taking the lead. Most at least pay lip service to democracy, and some do more than that. Corporations make no pretense of serving anyone but their stockholders, and some don’t even do that much.

Doug M. June 28, 2013 at 3:59

While the search for NEOs is indeed “racking them up”, it’s important to note that the nature of NEO discoveries has been evolving steadily over the last 15 years. Simply put, we are running out of large (>2 km diameter) NEOs; almost all of them have been discovered already. The vast majority of new NEOs discovered are less than 1 km, and most are less than 500m diameter.

– This should be obvious, right? Bigger objects are easier to spot, so naturally we’ll find them first. There are probably no undiscovered NEOs over 3 km in diameter left out there; anything that big, we’d have seen already.

So our grasp of the asteroid threat has gotten a lot better. And it’s going to get better yet — by the 2030s, we will have detected and mapped the orbits of pretty much every single NEO down to 200 meters or less.

So what does this mean? Well, it means that *there is no longer a significant asteroid threat to civilization*. A small rock might slip through and take out a city, sure. But we’ve already mapped most of the NEOs big enough to cause global devastation, and within another decade or two we’ll have them all.

Doug M.

David Cummings June 28, 2013 at 6:52

I agree with NASA’s decision to focus a lot of their resources on asteroids. What better use of their (sadly) limited funding than to at least put the start to a program to protect earth from the kind of cataclysm that could possibly end forever our quest to go to the stars. Humanity can’t reach the stars if it is cut down by a huge asteroid strike before it has a survivable presence elsewhere in the solar system and before it has a viable starship technology.

Although it’s true that such a collision appears unlikely, it’s certainly important to keep looking and to begin building some kind of asteroid-based technology.

NASA is doing the right thing. I just wish they had 20 times their current budget.

A. A. Jackson June 28, 2013 at 7:37

There is a new detection system called:
Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System , ATLAS.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_Terrestrial- Impact_Last_Alert_System
also here:
http://www.fallingstar.com/index.php
Which is a bit ominous sounding reminds me of Bob Newhart (as the President of the United States pre-recorded message when there is only about a 15 second waring before a nuclear war.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeiYotAgN3M

Doug M. June 28, 2013 at 8:05

@Dmitri, I’m guessing that’s a response to the recent Chelyabinsk event. but in terms of actually protecting us from NEOs, it’s pretty meaningless. as noted above, most of the NEOs that could do global damage have already been found. at the other end of the spectrum, it’s very unlikely that a small Chelyabinsk-sized impactor would ever be detected in time to do anything about it.

Doug M.

Alex Tolley June 28, 2013 at 8:42

Why should asteroid deflection/planetary defense be under Nasa purview rather than the DoD? If you need resources to get the job done, the DoD has far more resources to deploy.

Stan Erickson June 28, 2013 at 13:01

It would be nice to hear a little more about the program, so as to be able to interpret the data that is presented. Are they only looking for objects whose orbits are in the band between Venus and Mars, or do they consider those with large elliptical orbits, taking dozens of years to complete, similar to those of comets? How exactly, in such a short observation time, do you eliminate all the N-km sized objects with 50-250 year orbits whose perihelion comes near Earth ?

ljk June 28, 2013 at 13:33

Whoever “owns” the planetoids and comets will have the ability and resources to “rule” the Sol system and move beyond it. Nothing like millions of pure chunks of material with minimal mass and ready for refining for propulsion, colony construction material, spaceship building, and such.

The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty says no one can own the Universe, but I am sure some corporate lawyers are working on getting around that. There are also governments which would gladly ignore and steamroll over the treaty if they can get a real foothold on space.

Seriously, how is the UN going to enforce the treaty? So far it has been obeyed because few nations and companies have bothered with any real claims or stakes in the Final Frontier. This will change when real money is involved.

I suppose on the bright side, it finally feels like there will be some real action in terms of space utilization and colonization in the coming decades. Businesses and people in general still see space as the domain of science geeks and science fiction, if they think of it at all.

However, there are a few far-seeing companies on this planet who know where the real money and power will be in the future and they are making the first steps in preparation for the day when Earth is still respected as the Mother Planet but its deep gravity well, dwindling resources, and overpopulated terrain are not nearly as lucrative as the megatons of possibilities just beyond its atmosphere.

Hmmm, maybe Elysium won’t be so far off in its depiction of the future.

Here is the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty online:

http://history.nasa.gov/1967treaty.html

Relevant article opposing the treaty:

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/960/1

To quote from the above piece:

One of the many explanations for the absence of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations and a theme in science fiction is the proposition that humanity has been “quarantined” because of its immaturity and/or dangerous nature. We have been denied contact, in effect, until we change our ways and perhaps our nature. As with many of the other explanations for our isolation in the universe the idea cannot be tested, as yet at least. Any hidden extraterrestrial civilization observing our species need hardly have bothered. Humanity has done a fine job of confining itself to Earth and low Earth orbit and of undertaking only sporadic and anemic space exploration of other celestial bodies with unmanned vehicles.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty deserves much of the credit for reducing space exploration and development from a toddle to a crawl after the Apollo program. Drafted with the best intentions by fearful diplomats, it keeps humanity in its cradle, from which it can only gaze about its nursery room frustrated at the inability to touch the toys it sees. We know how to free ourselves from this situation: unilateral withdrawal from the treaty by one of the major spacefaring powers.

Dmitri June 29, 2013 at 10:59

Doug M., it’s not so clear cut. The Chelyabinsk incident showed what might happen. Utilization of SS-Satan is a long standing sore point as Russians want to advance their nuclear arsenal to Bulava by 2018 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSM-56_Bulava)

One way to utilized them is to replace the warhead with sttelaites and launch to space. The other way is use them, slightly modified, for purpose what they have been built for.

The fresh published research on Chelyabinsk analyzing ultra-low acoustic waves station data showed that cosmic pebble yielded 460 kton which is roughly a SS-Satan equivalent. (http://phys.org/news/2013-06-scientists-russian-meteor-shockwave-globe.html).

I like your reasoning regarding NEOs / NEAs. I actually think you are right. After Chelyabinsk there has been more than 10 meteorite incidence reports world wide. Yes, not with the bang as the one but noticeable to slip into world news. We still don’t know for sure frequency of Tunguska type of NEOs. In 1947 was Sikhote-Alin meteorite event (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikhote-Alin_meteorite), just mere 39 after the Tunguska. So what was that?

Russians claim they would be able to detect, depending on size, a collision course NEO up to 3 days or Chelyabinsk type pebbles up to 8 hours. There is also claims around world renowned astronomers of lack of such devices which could destroy such a NEO. The only discussions on such prevention in case of discoveries which are years-decades away like painting NEO in white to let Sun knock it off the course or artificial satellite which will gravitationally tug it off course, etc.

It might be indeed meaningless to knock them down with nukes, especially considering the explosion will happen on other country high atmosphere. For instance would have Chelyabinsk bolite entered Earth’s atmosphere 6h later (I’ve heard about the 6hours claim) it would have been over London. That would meant a hypothetical situation where Russians in sake for saving Chelyabinks would have been forced to nuke the pebble high over Japan territory.

Are nukes the right tool for this? Sounds like pretty meaningless. Are nukes the right tool for this if they could be deployed in 5-6h and prevent the event? Well, maybe, and it depends who pushes the red button. Let say it’s Iran, India or Pakistan. Let say it’s England, USA, Russia. There is a difference.

As you stated we know much about large and mid size NEOs. There is high probability we have surpassed the threat from the space threshold. The little annoying nuance is we still get NEO atmosphere reports. We know a lot of deal yet we have gaps in the knowledge to be on safe side. If meanwhile there is a tool to help preventing these event on short term, why not considering it? Yet who wants have a nuke pop over their heads in the sake of the whole humanity?

That’s why it’s new for me we could have a prevention tool and the probability of NEO annihilation is surpassed. Maybe the Russian’s video reel was just to inform of possibility but JoeP made me want to post about it.

I hope the fresh NEO tools in space will confirm your point.
Meanwhile – hope for best, prepare for worst.

Alex Tolley June 29, 2013 at 14:27

@ljk – I don’t really know who John Hickman is, but his characterization that : The 1967 Outer Space Treaty deserves much of the credit for reducing space exploration and development from a toddle to a crawl after the Apollo program. Drafted with the best intentions by fearful diplomats… strikes me as being very cynical. Both the Outer Space Treaty and the Law of the Sea Treaty were put in place when only a few nations could claim or exploit those resources and there was concern that resources would be divided up by the powerful, following a long history of such actions. Britain even went to “war” with Iceland over the Icelandic 200 mile limit for cod fisheries. Right now there is jockeying over claims for Arctic oil resources.

I seriously doubt that this treaty has had more than marginal effect on space development. Some chapters in the book: Space: The Free Market Frontier argue that the Outer Space Treaty does not include private companies which are free to exploit space resources.

Inexpensive access to space is going to be the key to getting useful development started. But we still need rules. Imagine a reckless disintegration of an asteroid for minerals results in a “cloud” of pebbles creating a hazard for other space vehicles. (We condemned the Chinese over destroying a satellite that had this effect).

On this note, I heartily recommend the story by Neal Stephenson Atmosphaera Incognita (and the follow up Coda by Greg Benford) in the “Starship Century” book. The 20 kilometer high steel tower becomes the support for a magnetic space launcher. It will be very interesting to see whether the tower idea has real merit and what it would cost to build if it did. Just the ride to a lookout/restaurant/bar at the top would be awesome. Watching a rocket emerge and ignite would be a real show. Just wow.

Tarmen June 30, 2013 at 11:50

I think a nuclear powered magnetic launch rail up the side of an equatorial mountain is the right way (doable, economical) to accelerate payloads before fuel ignition. (rather than a tower. ) There are suitable sites in Equador or Columbia or Kenya or Indonesia or New Guinea. Maybe even use hydro power from a dam. Nothing accelerates straight cargo payloads like electric rails. No need to carry the first 5 miles worth of fuel in your rocket. Just use a rail. If fact your payload may get far clear of the mountaintop before fuel is required. Small loads may reach orbit without any fuel required.

coolstar July 1, 2013 at 22:48

Why would anyone consider anything OTHER than a nuclear weapon to deflect/destroy an incoming NEO? Lots of studies have shown that this is the most effective way of transferring energy to the asteroid (and it doesn’t matter if it’s a rock pile or much more cohesive, that just changes the stand-off distance, basically). Most of the cost of such a mission is just in the getting there, so throwing in a nuke is a minor marginal cost (or basically, now, pretty much for free). Gravity tugs and kinetic energy impactors make nice papers for undergrad physics and astronomy majors, but in the real world, you’d use a nuke(s).

Dmitri July 5, 2013 at 16:46

Because it will end up in the same situation Russians considered previously – what is the best tool for intercepting enemy’s ICBM? Armada of rockets with nuclear warheads. EM pulse and the explosion will wipe out the rockets and their electronics. If the enemy knows you’ll nuke the nukes why not send ICBM with dummy warheads instead? The enemy will nuke themselves. All the fallout will be on their soil.

Nobody can guarantee that the NEO will be destroyed far away from the Earth’s atmosphere. Especially if you consider detection time in hours and deployment time in 5-6 hours. Even if you launch counter attack 3-2 hours before the NEO impact it might be low enough to have consequences.

C.Zane Dodds July 13, 2013 at 20:06

While I find all of this extremely exciting, and think its the right “big step” to take with our nations space program, I have one major worry. Moving an asteroid of any size would alter the orbits of hundreds if not thousands of other objects in the vicinity.

It’s taken a few billion years for the solar system to settle down to it’s current somewhat stable orbits. With all the plans that Planetary Resources and NASA have for moving objects around the inner solar system things might not be so stable.

I’d want a few dozen more telescopes monitoring NEO’s and really any object in the inner solar system before we start moving things closer to the Earth. Maybe even go so far as to set some kind of Solar Positioning System (SPS) tag on them just to be sure.

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