Last night, former astronaut, Ed Lu (here with Leighton Chong and Benny Ron), provided the third of Sheraton Waikiki's lecture series with the Institute for Astronomy at the University Hawaii in Kennedy Theatre on Astronomy Saves the World: Protecting the Planet from Asteroid Impacts. As a former employee of NASA at the Ames Research Center, it is no big secret about my attitude towards space:
- NASA was absolutely essential for Project Apollo, which helped bankrupt the Soviet Union
- The price tag was $25.4 billion, which today could well be worth up to $300 billion
- Certainly, the cost was well worth it to help end the Cold War
- NASA remains important to develop space-bio sciences to stimulate the imagination of the coming generations
- However, the end of the Cold War made NASA obsolete as a hardware/systems organization, for the expenditure of many billions on irrational attempts to reach Mars, and similar misadventures are beyond the pale--these could well someday be necessary, but probably centuries or milllennia into the future
- One mission worthy of a full-scale effort is to detect and deflect large incoming asteroids
However, according to Dr. Lu, NASA is just not interested in taking on this task. He said there are two steps:
- use a space infrared telescope to map those incoming disasters
- design a system to deflect it
The B612 (named after the home of the Little Prince from Le Petit Prince) Foundation has proposed to undertake the tougher mission, step one. However, the cost should only be around half a billion dollars. Money is regularly raised by civic organizations across the country at these sums just to add a wing to an art museum. Surely, there must be a billionaire or two willing to provide the funds to save humanity.
He wasn't being sarcastic. Once B612 finds a potential killer asteroid, he has confidence that governments will partner to build a spacecraft equipped to deflect it. He says, while much more expensive that finding the target, there should be no technical hurdles to overcome. Being an astronaut, he must know what he is saying.
How serious is this threat?
Over the next hundred years, if no precautions are taken, there will be a 30% chance that an asteroid, if it strikes a city, could wipe it out. Of course, the odds are low that this space rock will hit a city, but it's possible. The 1908 Tunguska event over Russia was a 200-600 foot wide asteroid (which did not actually impact our planet--it exploded at an elevation of 2-6 miles). This is another reason why you don't actually see too many monumental craters on land. We have detected maybe 1% of the asteroids this large. Project Sentinel (right) will find them.
There is a 0.001% chance that an asteroid ten times the diameter (say 2/3 of a mile) could impact Planet Earth. This would permanently eliminate humanity. Somewhere in between is that "medium" sized cataclysm that could kill 100 million people. This one is at a scary 1% probability. Most of us have fire insurance for similar probabilities. But there is no current insurance for this killer asteroid threat. Thus, the B612 Foundation was created.
It was a dozen years ago that Ed Lu and Piet Hut brought together 20 space experts at the Johnson Space Center to discuss the concept. A year later, B612 was formed. They now have secured $20 million and have a launch date of 2018. In many ways, Blue Revolution Hawaii is, then, well on track to gain similar funding, for our founders first met three years ago and formed this 501 c3 nonprofit organization a little more than two years ago. If we follow their timeline, our Blue Revolution plant ship should become operational around 2025. However, I'm impatient, and would like this monumental event to happen in the Year 2020.