Planetary defense could provide NASA much-needed role

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Trump critics laughed at the president’s proposal to create a Space Force for only a news cycle or two before moving on to the next issue.

The idea did win an endorsement from popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, before he was distracted by sexual misconduct allegations.

While Tyson and Trump saw the proposal as a defense against earthbound threats, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine warned of another space-borne threat that should be taken seriously.

You probably remember seeing dashcam video of a meteor that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinski in 2013; that one had “30 times the energy of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima,” he said.

That one injured about 1,500 people, but what most people don’t remember is that a few hours after the explosion, NASA detected an even larger object that slipped by the earth without striking.

Speaking at the Planetary Defense Conference in Washington, D.C., NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine warned that the risk posed by meteor crashes was not being taken seriously.

The public has been jaded by Hollywood, Bridenstine said at the Planetary Defense Conference in Washington, D.C.

“This is not about Hollywood, this is not about movies, this is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life,” he said.

Modelling systems predict that meteors capable of creating significant damage hit the earth once every 60 years, but Bridenstine noted that three destructive meteors had struck the earth in the past century.

NASA is only a third of the way toward fulfilling a 2018 White House mandate to detect, track and characterize 90% of near-earth objects measuring 460 feet in diameter, he said — those are big enough to destroy an American state or a European country.

We’re not doing nothing. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a $69 million contract to launch NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test to determine whether striking an asteroid with a spacecraft could deflect it enough to miss the earth.

We can only wonder what will happen if NASA detects a near-earth object large enough to create mass destruction before an effective defense system is in place.

“We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program,” Bridenstine said. “But we do, and we need to use it.”

Granted, NASA has a vested interest in generating funding for space programs, and fear is always a motivation for congressional spending.

Space exploration supporters always make the argument that every dollar spent for space exploration is spent on earth. The same supporters like to point out space technology that has improved our everyday lives, from miniaturized electronics to GPS to lifesaving weather forecasts.

NASA, relatively unfocused since it achieved the moon landing 50 years ago, needs a worthwhile goal. Planetary defense could provide that target.

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