The Trump administration wants to make Earth great again by spending more than $100 million to help protect the planet from cataclysmic asteroids.
Unless classic Capitol Hill gridlock gets in the way.
The administration is seeking the money to develop defenses against thousands of potentially lethal space rocks, including a planned NASA test that would use an unmanned spacecraft to nudge a small asteroid off course. The administration also wants to more than double the budget for NASA’s once-obscure “planetary defense” office and is telling the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop crisis plans for asteroid strikes.
The moves come as astronomers have found an ever-growing number of asteroids large enough to cause catastrophe, akin to the collision that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
But while planetary threat is real, the money to deal with it is caught up in Congress’ latest spending delays.
A new fiscal year begins Monday, but lawmakers have yet to pass the specific spending bill that would boost NASA’s asteroid defense plans. That means the money will have to wait until they take up a broad spending package in December — or possibly longer if Congress cannot come to agreement.
Meanwhile, astronomers say, the 30 million miles surrounding the Earth include at least 10,000 objects at least as long as a football field. About 950 of those are a kilometer in size or greater, big enough to cause “a global disaster if they struck Earth,” NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said in an interview.
Even an object 140 meters long or larger could cause calamity, he said — and NASA’s catalog had 8,303 of them as of last week.
“If it were to impact near a metropolitan area, it would be a disaster on a scale more than anything we’ve tried to deal with in our history,” Johnson said.
The effect on NASA’s mission depends on how Congress’ annual spending logjam lasts this time.
“If it only lasts two months, the effect will be minimal,” Johnson said. “However, if it lasts close to six months like it did last year, projects will start to be impacted.”
Key members of Congress are also taking an abiding interest in the issue. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, has pressed NASA to accelerate its efforts.
“What steps do we need to be taking so that we don’t have to rely on sending Bruce Willis to space to save humanity?” Cruz asked NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen at a hearing last month. He was alluding to the 1998 film “Armageddon,” which depicted a mad scramble to save humanity from being pulverized into extinction.
“Small planetary bodies hurling through space have scarred the Earth and planets around us and are a threat to humanity,” Zurbuchen testified before Cruz’s panel. “Protecting the Earth from asteroid or comet impacts is a key focus for us.”
A main thrust of the administration’s asteroid push is NASA’s upcoming “Double Asteroid Redirect Test.” The demonstration will use a spacecraft to ram into and “change the orbit” of a small moon around the asteroid Didymos, as Zurbuchen told the Senate. The asteroid will be about 7 million miles from Earth in 2022, he said.
The administration’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year seeks nearly $100 million for the demonstration. That makes up the lion’s share of the administration’s proposal to increase the budget for Johnson’s office from $60 million this year to $150 million.
The overall funding boost, Johnson said, “allows us to embark on space capabilities and demonstration of deflection techniques and to start work on space-based detection and characterization capabilities.”
The stepped-up asteroid defense initiative also includes a recent directive telling FEMA to plan for a strike on the Earth and compelling other federal agencies to better coordinate with foreign nations.
The potential for a large asteroid impact poses “significant and complex risk to both human life and critical infrastructure, and [has] the potential to cause substantial and possibly even unparalleled economic and environmental harm,” according to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan, which the White House issued earlier this summer.
Americans, too, appear eager to see NASA take on a bigger role in this regard. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center this year found that people believe protecting the planet from space objects should be one of the top two priorities of the space program, along with addressing climate change.
By its nature, countering the asteroid danger will require planning well in advance. That begins with tracking any objects that might be heading toward a cosmic date with our planet and then studying ways of preventing it.
“Thirty years ago, there were maybe only a handful of astronomers that thought there was any danger,” Johnson said. “It is because nobody had really looked at what is out there. We have got to find them first before we can do anything about them.”
The private sector is also getting into the cause. One foundation, dedicated to a better understanding of asteroids and the threat they pose, is working with Google to build a more comprehensive database.
The B612 Foundation, founded by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart, is spearheading the ADAM Project, which stands for Asteroid Decision and Mapping. It will soon get a major boost from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a joint effort of the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation.
“Our main rallying cry for everybody is we need a comprehensive, predictive map of the locations and trajectories of these near-earth asteroids,” foundation President Danica Remy said. The foundation get its name from “The Little Prince,” the 1943 French novella whose main character hailed from a small asteroid designated on Earth as B612.
There is the question of what humans could do if they get enough advance notice that an asteroid appears to be hurtling toward Earth.
NASA has high hopes for the planned DART test but has also studied two other options it deems potentially viable.
“The most reliable methods are based upon basically one simple principle,” said Johnson, a former Air Force officer. “We just need to change the velocity of the asteroid by a fraction of a percent. If we do that far enough ahead of time … an asteroid orbiting the sun will change its orbit from a hazardous orbit to one that is benign.
In addition to ramming the object off course, NASA has studied the tactic of flying a spacecraft alongside an asteroid and using their mutual gravity to steer it on another path.
Then there’s “the nuclear option” — or as Johnson calls it, “the one everybody likes to talk about.”
But that doesn’t just mean nuking an asteroid.
“Blow it up into bitty pieces and then you have a bunch of buckshot headed at you,” Johnson explained. “You haven’t changed the direction of it. You have just broken it up into pieces, some of which the Earth’s atmosphere may take care of but maybe not all.”
Instead, “the most effective technique, we think, would be to have an explosion of a nuclear device several hundred meters from the surface of the asteroid. The nuclear radiation causes super heating of the asteroid surface and imparts a force on the asteroid in the opposite direction.”
But NASA is most eager to get going with its planned ram-the-asteroid test set for 2022, which is at risk of being held hostage by Congress failure to pass a new budget to fund the space program.
“There will start to be winners and losers as the fiscal year moves along and the expected increase in budget doesn’t materialize,” Johnson said. “Since one of the biggest budget increases is expected for planetary defense, it will probably be one of the ones more affected as the year moves on.”