Steve's Reflections


In 1999 and 2000, Steve Kirsch outlined his thoughts on a variety of philanthropic and political reform topics. Please select from the list to find those of interest to you.

Steve's Reflection #15

Earth Threatening Comets and Asteroids - What needs to be done?

Read current information about the Foundation's work on NEOs.

I wanted to provide a member of the U.S. Congress with some factual information about the potential devastating consequences of under-funding research to identify asteroids that could hit the Earth. Two professionals in the field, Donald K. Yeomans, the Manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Office, and Robert McMillan, Associate Research Scientist and Principal Investigator, Spacewatch, University of Arizona, wrote the following memo and gave me permission to publicize it. After you read their memo, you will see additional comments from me.

From Donald K. Yeomans and Robert McMillan:

The scientific community has come to realize that the hazard to Earth from asteroid and comet collisions is comparable to other natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes and floods, differing not in terms of "average fatalities per year" but mainly in terms of frequency of occurrence. Although no significant number of deaths by asteroid or comet collisions have occurred in all of recorded history, major impact events are expected on time scales of about 500,000 years. Impacts of these so-called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) have catastrophically disrupted the Earth's ecosystem in the past. Unless checked, these disasters will occur again; the question is when - not if. While events of this type could cause billions of fatalities from a single strike, impacts of these so-called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are avoidable. NEO impacts are the only type of serious natural disaster for which accurate predictions can be made and for which the technology exists for successful mitigation efforts.

Currently NASA contributes some support for five small telescopic search groups in their efforts to discover the large NEOs that form the majority of the impact threat to Earth. NASA's goal is to discover, within 10 years, 90% of the population of NEOs with diameters larger than one kilometer. For this population, predictions of their future motions can be made, future close Earth approaches can be identified, and Earth impact probabilities computed. While the total population of large NEOs is not accurately known, recent modeling estimates put this total between 700 and 1000 objects. By mid-May 2000, a total of 390 of these large NEOs had been discovered and all are now being tracked. None of these known objects pose a near-term threat to Earth. However, most of the population remains undiscovered and the current discovery rate is at least a factor of four too slow to achieve the NASA discovery goal.

The annual support of Near-Earth Object research within NASA is currently 3.5 million dollars. Additional funding is required to boost the discovery rate to reach the NASA goal and to characterize a sizable percentage of these objects in terms of their likely sizes, structures and compositions. Comets and asteroids in the near-Earth population are known to run the gamut from small, fragile fluffballs to several kilometer-sized slabs of solid iron. Successful mitigation techniques for Earth threatening objects will require that we know not only when an Earth impact is likely but also what is the size, structure and likely composition of the potential impactor. The current NASA budget of $3.5 million dollars per year for NEO research must be raised to at least twice that amount to effectively deal with the menace of the near-Earth objects.

It should be understood clearly that this recommendation for a funding increase is not an effort on our part to augment funding for a particular group. The funds should continue to be awarded by NASA through its peer review process. However, Congress should also understand that there is value in stabilizing the funding for the existing NEO research teams with their established talents and physical assets.

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My Thoughts:
The statistics cited above are independent probabilities. That means that the probability that we are hit next year is exactly the same as the probability we are hit 500,000 years from now. The key point is that it is not a question of whether we will be hit. For a small amount of money, we will absolutely save the lives of billions of people. We just don't know when. Since it could be next year, the time to spend this money is now. Each dollar you spend today saves 100 lives sometime in the future. Now that's cost effective!

Statistically, the chances of being killed by an asteroid are about 1in 5,000, which is greater than the chance of being killed in a plane crash. It's just that the incidences of asteroid impact are fewer and further between. Based on these probabilities, we are seriously underfunding this effort compared to the dollars we are spending on air safety. In fact, the additional funding being sought here is less than the cost of a small jet.

After reading articles in Time magazine about "near miss" asteroids cited below, I began funding Jim Scotti's research group through the Kirsch Foundation with over $150,000 over the past 2 years. Through the Foundation, I will continue to give $100,000 per year until the research is complete. This money is helpful, but it is not sufficient.

Scotti was the astronomer who found XL1 in 1994; it came within 65,000 miles of Earth. Think about how close that is. The circumference of the Earth is around 24,000 miles so that is around 2.5 times the circumference of the Earth. That's way too close for comfort. Because of a lack of funds, we had only 14 hours of warning for that asteroid. And in 1996, a rock one-third of a mile wide came within 280,000 miles. Again, a lack of funds meant we only had four days notice. Scotti was also the astronomer who discovered XF11 in 1997. This asteroid is a mile wide and will come within 600,000 miles of Earth in 2028. Here we have 30 years notice. Spending the money now does pay off.

There are less people working in this area worldwide than work at a single McDonald's restaurant. Isn't it time for a change? Wasn't a near miss six years ago enough time for Congress to make an appropriation? Will it take a direct hit with six seconds of notice where billions of people have to die for us to allocate a total dollar amount that is less than the cost of a single commercial jetliner?

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