Pathetic Global Inaction Against Asteroid Threat – OpEd


A precious few months after categorical assurances by NASA officials that there is no imminent danger of any asteroid hit on our vulnerable plant, suddenly we learn that NASA is surprised to discover, from a Hawaiian observatory, that a giant asteroid is flying dangerously close to earth at the “extreme speed” of 80,000 miles an hour. Not to worry, says NASA, because it will miss us by a distance of 1.3 lunar, roughly over 300,000 miles, i.e., a trifle 5 hours flight for the “flyby” asteroid. Yet, in the same breath, NASA has described the asteroid as “hazardous” and extremely dangerous, i.e., there is a bit of incoherence evinced here.

The big question is, of course, if there is any chance of orbital change that would put the asteroid’s trajectory on direct impact with earth? Given the “extreme eccentricity” of the big rock the size of empire state building, to paraphrase NASA, I wonder if we can afford to be hundred percent about something that might fluctuate in the days ahead and potentially put human survival at risk?

This is after all going to be a very ‘near-earth’ object — “incredibly close to earth” according to ABC News — that did not appear on NASA’s radar until October 10 and certainly defies the comforting assurances given to us by the NASA officials, who are on record predicting nothing remotely as close and as dangerous as this asteroid “until 2027”.

According to a NASA official, “How to divert an asteroid is still being studied. But options would include things like gravity tractors in addition to anything involving nuclear explosions.”

With only a paltry budget allocated to tracking and studying the asteroids, NASA is a lame authority when it comes to asteroids, reflected in the fact that by NASA’s own admission, only around ten percent of the near-earth asteroids have been identified so far.

The other big question is why is absolutely nothing being done in terms of contingencies to deal with the earth-approaching asteroids? Imagine if this one was on a collision course with earth, what remedies would we have? And what if there is a last minute orbital change by the “flyby” asteroids due to its extreme speed and other space factors, making it “fly into” earth instead? Should that happen, scientists predict an earth-shattering consequence, i.e., basically the end of earth as we know it, due to the explosion of equivalent of some thousands of Hiroshima bombs.

That is why the world governments must act quickly to consider the available options for rapid reaction to a planetary risk that is the equivalent of the biggest military threat against humanity.

A clue to the pathetic inattention to this threat by world leaders, none of them in their recent UN gatherings bothered to mention it or urge collective action to counter it, as if problems such as climate or regional disputes are more important. US and Russia have signed an asteroid cooperation agreement that remains on paper as a result of the new cold war hostilities between them, which is a pity because of the common threat posed by asteroids and the potential viability of the nuclear option — to nuke the incoming asteroids at a relatively safe distance to divert them or demolish them into smaller, and less dangerous, particles.

World citizens, on the other hand, need to get mobilized and create non-government organizations to raise consciousness about asteroid threats and the potential remedies. With active citizen lobbying, definitely more funds would be allocated to NASA’s asteroid project as well as to the asteroid disaster response programs aimed at preparing citizens with their survival. In the US, this might need to go at both federal and local levels, with towns and communities getting their act together on a matter of highest importance to them, their sheer survival.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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