From April 29 to May 3, a unique five-day conference took place bringing together leading scientists, engineers and policymakers to discuss the important matter of mankind’s long-term survival in a very hostile part of the galaxy. The fifth annual Planetary Defense Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, was opened by a powerful keynote address by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who painted a picture not only of the very real threat life on Earth faces due to the highly volatile (and highly unknown) behavior of asteroids (near-Earth objects) orbiting in our sector of the solar system, but also outlined an important pathway to world peace.
The threat of asteroid collisions with the Earth is very real, and provides a very serious basis for international cooperation on the common aims and in the interest of humankind.
Bridenstine opened his speech by saying, “We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood. It’s not about movies. This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”
After announcing the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), Bridenstine said “we know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program … but we do, and we need to use it.”
As these words were being spoken, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration had announced that asteroid 99942 Apophis (named after the Egyptian god of chaos) would come within 30,500 kilometers of the Earth on April 13, 2029 – which is closer than some satellites. The head of NASA’s presence at this forum was especially important since the White House had recently created a “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” that commissioned a simulation of Apophis colliding with the Earth with devastating results.
Currently only 8,000 of the estimated local asteroids larger than 140 meters in diameter have been identified and nothing is even close to being in place to change their trajectories. Even if a collision were not to occur for several years, humanity’s technologies and priorities are dismally far from preventing such a collision.
Just to put things in perspective, Bridenstine reminded his audience that in February 2013, a meteor measuring only 20 meters in diameter and traveling at 64,000km/h exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, causing a shockwave that destroyed property and injured more than 1,600 people. The energy in that blast was the equivalent of 30 Hiroshima bombs. This incident caught the world off guard, since everyone’s eyes were pointed at the other side of the Earth, where a much larger asteroid came within 27,000km but missed that same day.
Potential Russian-US alliance
Bridenstine, who has been a longtime advocate of US-Russia-China collaboration on science, described his experience in Russia at that time. “When I was over in Russia, the head of Roscosmos, Dimitri Rogozin, said that was high on his agenda. As you can imagine with Chelyabinsk and Tunguska, Russia has been significantly impacted by these events, so they have keen awareness and intensity on this that I think is important.”
In 2011 Rogozin made headlines by calling for a policy he termed “The Strategic Defense of the Earth (SDE).” As the name implies, the SDE was a revival of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) US president Ronald Reagan first made in 1983. Unlike George Bush Sr’s unilateral version of the SDI later, that first version was based on joint US-Russia collaboration of a ground- and space-based system of plasma-based advanced laser technologies that would have made nuclear war strategically impossible. While the Russians rejected the offer then, Rogozin’s reactivation of the idea three decades later was a stroke of poetic irony.
Rogozin’s new design called not only for international collaboration around an anti-nuclear-war policy, but additionally included asteroid defense. Rogozin was very clear in 2011 that this policy would re-channel the trillions of dollars’ worth of military hardware being built up by the anti-ballistic-missile shield around Russia (and China) into a function that protects rather than destroys life.
Little known in the West, Russia Today reported in October 2011 that the program focused on “fighting threats coming from space rather than just missiles.… It would be an integration of anti-aircraft, missile, and space defenses. The system would be targeted against possible threats to Earth coming from space, including asteroids, comet fragments, and other alien bodies.… The system should be capable of both monitoring space and destroying any dangerous objects as they approach our planet.”
The lunar element
Today both Rogozin and Bridenstine are leading figures behind Russian and American plans for lunar and Mars colonization. The US currently has a commitment for a permanent lunar colony by 2024 as a platform for lunar mining and Mars development. Russia’s vision is nearly identical, with plans for the first manned mission between 2025 and 2034 and a permanent colony established by 2040. The European Space Agency has plans for a manned moon colony by 2030 and China has announced its first manned mission by the same period. All four agencies have expressed a serious interest for asteroid defense.
Already, through Bridenstine’s leadership NASA has managed to crack the US government’s ban on space cooperation with China imposed under Barack Obama’s presidency, when NASA shared data with China during the Chang’e-4 landing on the far side of the moon on January 3 this year. Leaders among the Russian, Chinese and American space agencies have made it clear that the lunar-Mars development programs are heavily driven by opportunities for space mining (including the abundance of helium-3 deposits on the moon that are unavailable on Earth). Anyone serious about fusion technology knows that this isotope, which has accumulated for billions of years on the moon thanks to its lack of a magnetic field, is the best source of fuel for fusion as the next phase in human development.
Regardless of what we may wish to believe, humanity exists in a universe that demands we pay attention to its behavior. Galactically driven catastrophes have led to five mass extinctions since the Cambrian period and, as Bridenstine noted, we are the first species that has exhibited the potential capability to prevent another one from occurring.
A version of this article was originally published by the Strategic Culture Foundation and is located here.