2013-02-17 – The rock that fell in Russia the other day—I’m glad it didn’t fall on my head. But folks are talking about asteroids as the greatest ignored threat that society faces today. I don’t buy it.
First of all, the threat is not being ignored. NASA tracks asteroids and is developing plans for deflecting asteroids that appear headed for the Earth. NASA’s got a stake in this because, if we can go deflect an asteroid, we also might be able to mine it. And the technology to send rockets to asteroids is a step toward the technology needed to send humans to Mars.
Not only is NASA paying close attention to this, so are the media. We just completed a year-long media hype over the 2012 Mayan apocalypse that had something to do with an asteroid or similar body disrupting the Earth (as if ancient Mayans knew anything about celestial mechanics).
My other quibble is more substantial. I simply don’t see asteroid falls as an imminent threat.
This does not mean that I don’t believe an asteroid will never strike the Earth. I actually believe it will happen with 100 percent assurance—an undetermined millions of years from now. And one day the sun will explode and expand in a way that will engulf and vaporize the Earth. Call me parochial, but I have a hard time getting excited about a risk that is more than a million years (or billion) into the future. Honestly, my risk horizon is probably not even 100 years.
So, I don’t mind NASA gearing up to fight the asteroids. I support the development of space technology. Developing the tools to fight asteroids is not a detour. These are exactly the tools NASA needs to further space exploration.
But truly, are asteroids a more pressing problem than global climate change, world hunger, or war?
The last big asteroid strike on the Earth was 65 million years ago. It was definitely catastrophic. Something like that happening now would ruin your day. But the time scale involved there is immense. NASA’s working on it. I think we’re covered.
In the meantime, don’t you think there are other catastrophes that are closer to home?
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