Back to the DART Board: How Serious is the Asteroid Threat?
1 November 2022
NASA successfully demonstrated its asteroid redirect mission, DART. But is humanity really facing an extinction-level threat from space?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently executed its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), in the first-ever planetary defense demonstration mission. The DART spacecraft intentionally rammed into 160 metre-wide Dimorphos, the moonlet of the 780 metre-asteroid Didymos on 28 September 2022. In doing so, it successfully altered the smaller body’s orbit by about 1% (about 10 minutes). It thereby succeeded in using kinetic impact to change an asteroid’s motion in space. The success of the $324.5 million-mission has been termed as a “significant addition to the toolbox” that humanity must possess in order to protect the Earth from getting destroyed by an asteroid that may be hurtling towards it.
The perceived threat from giant space rocks or planets colliding with our planet and wiping out humanity has arguably been embedded within the human fear psyche in recent times. Such scenarios have been colourfully depicted by popular Hollywood movies over the past two decades. Asteroids herein appear to be the harbingers of the biblical events of Armageddon and apocalypse which shall bring about the ultimate destruction of the world. Incidentally, Armageddon is also the name of the infamous 1998 movie whose plot revolves around fictitious American oil drillers who save the planet from a killer asteroid by drilling a hole to detonate a nuclear weapon to split it in half. Meanwhile, the 2021 film, Don’t Look Up sought to present in a satirical form, humanity’s lack of coordination and helplessness while facing a real existential threat from a comet. Such depictions in popular culture, may have served to magnify the threat perception from near-earth asteroids headed to collide with Earth.
As early as 2005, the US Congress first passed a bill mandating NASA to find and track near-Earth objects (NEOs) of 140-metre or larger by 2020. However, the mandate suffered from lack of funding. The trend began to change in 2010, when the White House announced a 5-fold increase in funding for NEO observation in the lead up to setting up a full-fledged planetary defense program. For instance, in 2018-2019 period, NASA allocated about $150 million on planetary defense, a figure 40 times more than the budgetary allocation in 2009. While the increase in funding has been attributed to a 2010 National Research Council (NRC) Report which presented the rationalisation in scientific and policy terms, NASA pointed to its human spaceflight program to justify increased funding. Gaining knowledge about NEOs herein was essential to take human spaceflight in newer directions through acquiring capabilities to take human beings to multiple destinations including “the Moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, and Mars and its environs”. Contextualising the same within the “New Space Race”, it follows that politics was the most important factor in planetary defense acquiring more importance by the second decade of the 21st Century. Funding increases may also have been prompted by the 2013 incident wherein a small asteroid, the size of a building fell on to Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast causing minor damage to property and injuries (mostly from the shattering of glass) to the city’s inhabitants.
As per data released by the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization in 2014, the Earth had witnessed at least 26 asteroid impacts on Earth during the 2000-2013 period which released energy equivalent to that of nuclear explosions. However, there has only been one recorded instance of a person having been killed from an meteorite hit in an incident that occurred in 1888 in Turkey. The impact of an asteroid of that fell into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is widely speculated to have caused dinosaurs to go extinct about sixty-six million years ago. NASA consequently categorises a potential strike from an asteroid wider than 10 km as an extinction-class event. A recent finding by Chinese scientists has contradicted this notion. According to this study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the decline in dinosaur diversity occurred due to climatic fluctuations and volcanic eruptions, with the asteroid impact potentially accelerating the impact on a vulnerable ecosystem. "There's nothing, there's no asteroid that we know of that poses a significant threat to Earth," Kelly Fast, who is a near-Earth object observations program manager at NASA noted in November 2021.
NASA’s establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in 2016 whose task is to detect and track potentially threatening NEOs, issue warnings and devise strategies have contributed to a growing body of knowledge on the nature of threat from NEOs. An increase in alarmism and focus on planetary defense may simply be viewed as a consequence of this increased knowledge and improvements in means of tracking. Moreover, the human mind itself works in such a way that it tends to be more aware of an event the more it learns about it.
Planetary Defense in this context “lacks convincing statistics” for politicians to make a call on how much of an immediate threat it is. Politicians’ considerations in this context may very well be influenced by vested interest from the military-industrial complex. Similar hype accorded to cyber warfare has been noted to be helpful in keeping a steady inflow of money coming in, while media also becomes a winner in a hyping game. Hyping threats such as those from asteroids may also serve as a classic diversionary tactic, which may justify these significant costs. For commercial space players, improved knowledge upon NEOs means a stronger basis for growing space mining ventures, no matter how far-fetched in the future their realisation could be. Securitising such threats may also serve to legitimise the setting up of branches of military dedicated to outer space and may provide the means to weaponise outer space. Afterall, depictions of planetary defense missions in popular culture has involved on some level detonation of nuclear weapons in outer space, the clear ban on which seems to be the only solid grounding on which the international legal regime on outer space currently stands upon. The underlying intentions of leading spacefaring nations in this context need to be viewed in the light of evolving geopolitics.
Existential threats ranging from climate change to pandemics have wiped out entire civilisations since time immemorial. Moreover, the world continues to reel on several levels from the continued impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The idiosyncrasy of spending millions of dollars to engage in a suicidal, yet purportedly noble mission becomes questionable in this context. Space missions have never been insulated from this question although the disproportionate amount of resources allocated to them have been justified around a construct of national security, along with pride and prestige. However, deploying a mission such as DART to destroy a killer asteroid to save life on earth might be hard to realise in case of an eventuality. For one, existing capabilities in Space Situational Awareness with respect to NEOs can only predict their trajectory, size and velocity within an average time-frame of a few weeks. From launch to impact, a mission such as DART took at least 13 months of time to achieve (a giant leap of a) blip on a space rock. Timely and adequate response in this context appears to be the need of the hour.
While the DART mission needs to be lauded for enhancing preparedness with respect to planetary defense, the preparedness needs to be made well-rounded with improvements in Space Situational Awareness (SSA). Resources may also be poured into answering the questions on “how to be responsive in space”, a problem that entities including the Pentagon and the US Space Force have been intent on tackling. Simply put, responsive launch capability refers to the ability to launch on demand to meet time-bound contingencies during times of war. Such rapid launch capabilities that provide the means to carry a payload to destroy an incoming asteroid are equally important to neutralise a potential existential threat. Moreover, such rapid response capabilities in space need to be based on a comprehensive awareness of the space domain. Responsive launch based on strong SSA in this context for any nation-state to keep drawing strategic, commercial and scientific dividends from exploitation of outer space.
Views may vary on how big of a threat asteroids pose to planetary security, especially as the evolving discourse on the area has underlined climate change as a bigger challenge threatening the survival of life as we know it. This is not to suggest that viable countermeasures to thwart a inanimate threat from outer space should not be developed. However, the thin odds as prevailing statistics indicate have to be taken into account and viable capabilities need to be developed in this light. Most importantly, the credibility of securitisation process in case of planetary defense need to be examined in light of wider and more immediate threats, especially as geopolitical interests are increasingly dictating the future of outer space as the common province of all mankind.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Anupama is the Editor-in-Chief of StraTechos. She is a Co-founder and Director of Trivium Think Tank. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and is a recipient of the Government of India's UGC Senior Research Fellowship. Her doctoral research focuses on the interplay between technology and power in international relations.