The Plans to Use Nuclear Weapons to Blow Up Incoming Asteroids

Douglas Birch, The Atlantic
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Douglas Birch, The Atlantic
Oct. 16, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

When plan­et­ary sci­ent­ist H. Jay Melosh at­ten­ded a meet­ing between nuc­le­ar weapons de­sign­ers from the United States and the former So­viet Uni­on in May 1995, he was sur­prised by how eagerly the ex-Cold War­ri­ors sought to work to­geth­er against an un­likely but dan­ger­ous ex­tra­ter­restri­al threat: as­ter­oids on a col­li­sion course with Earth.

After Ed­ward Tell­er, fath­er of the Amer­ic­an hy­dro­gen bomb, urged oth­ers in the ses­sion at Lawrence Liv­er­more Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory to con­sider build­ing and or­bit­ing large, new, nuc­le­ar weapons for plan­et­ary pro­tec­tion, some top Rus­si­an weapon­eers in at­tend­ance voiced their sup­port.

“It was a really bizarre thing to see that these weapons de­sign­ers were will­ing to work to­geth­er — to build the biggest bombs ever,” said Melosh, a geo­phys­i­cist at Purdue Uni­versity and ex­pert in space im­pacts who has an as­ter­oid named after him.

Ever since, he has been push­ing back against re­ly­ing on nuc­le­ar bombs for the Earth’s de­fense, ar­guing that a non-nuc­le­ar solu­tion — di­vert­ing the tra­ject­ory of as­ter­oids by hit­ting them with bat­ter­ing rams — is both pos­sible and much less dan­ger­ous.

But Melosh’s cam­paign suffered a set­back last month when the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new En­ergy Sec­ret­ary, Ern­est Mon­iz, signed an agree­ment with the Rus­si­ans that the Amer­ic­ans said could open the door to new col­lab­or­a­tion between nuc­le­ar weapons sci­ent­ists on as­ter­oid de­fense. The top­ic has been par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing to the Rus­si­ans since an as­ter­oid the size of a tour-bus ex­ploded high in the skies of Rus­sia’s Chelyab­insk re­gion last Feb­ru­ary.

Pres­id­ent Barack Obama has com­mit­ted the United States to seek­ing a world without nuc­le­ar weapons, pushed for joint re­duc­tions in the U.S. and Rus­si­an nuc­le­ar ar­sen­als and sought tight­er se­cur­ity for nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives world­wide. “When we fail to pur­sue peace, then it stays forever bey­ond our grasp,” Obama said dur­ing his land­mark speech in Prague in April 2009.

But in re­cent years, ad­voc­ates of the use of nuc­le­ar weapons to counter space threats have been gain­ing ground. NASA is spend­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars a year to study the idea, and the U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons labor­at­or­ies are itch­ing to work with the Rus­si­ans on it. Moreover, weapon­eers in both coun­tries are cit­ing the as­ter­oid threat as a reas­on to hold onto — or to build — very large yield nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives, which have little ter­restri­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion.

There are a few im­ped­i­ments, such as the 1967 Out­er Space Treaty signed by 129 coun­tries, which pro­hib­its de­ploy­ing nuc­le­ar weapons in space, and oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al treat­ies that bar nuc­le­ar weapons test­ing any­where, in­clud­ing in space. Many plan­et­ary sci­ent­ists are leery of the idea and some ex­perts worry that ra­dio­act­ive debris from such a nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion could it­self wreak hav­oc on Earth.

Out­side the world of weapon­eers, the idea can evoke hu­mor, as ex­em­pli­fied by the kitschy 1998 Bruce Wil­lis ac­tion film “Armaged­don,” which shows a team of deep-sea oil drillers land­ing on an Earth-bound as­ter­oid to im­plant a nuc­le­ar war­head that, at the last mo­ment, sep­ar­ates the rock in­to neat halves that just miss Earth. Film crit­ic Ken­neth Tur­an called it “sporad­ic­ally watch­able.”

But in real life, Bong Wie, the dir­ect­or of Iowa State Uni­versity’s As­ter­oid De­flec­tion Re­search Cen­ter, has a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Na­tion­al Aero­naut­ics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion to design a “hy­per­ve­lo­city nuc­le­ar in­ter­cept­or sys­tem,” ba­sic­ally an mis­sile-borne, nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ive fit­ted with a bat­ter­ing ram. The ram would sep­ar­ate from the bomb be­fore im­pact, gou­ging a crater in the as­ter­oid so the bomb could then blast it apart.

Wie’s plan is hardly Tell­er’s grand vis­ion of a space-based nuc­le­ar as­ter­oid shield. He pro­poses us­ing off-the-shelf land-based mis­siles and ex­plos­ive war­heads cur­rently in the U.S. stock­pile to in­ter­cept large, city-shat­ter­ing as­ter­oids that are less than about 10 years from slam­ming in­to the Earth, when time is too short to nudge them in­to a new or­bit.

These Earth-de­fend­ing mis­siles, he said in an in­ter­view, could be launched years in ad­vance or even on short warn­ing, al­though a later de­fense in­creases the like­li­hood that large chunks of ra­dio­act­ive debris will rain onto the plan­et’s sur­face. Wie ar­gues that, even in this case, smal­ler pieces would burn up in the at­mo­sphere and strikes by the re­main­ing rocks would be less dam­aging than a dir­ect hit by an in­tact as­ter­oid.

The next lo­gic­al step, Wie says, would be to test his plan by launch­ing a mis­sile and dummy war­head to strike an as­ter­oid, at a cost of around $500 mil­lion, to see if his two-stage design could work. But so far this is just a concept.

En­thu­si­asm at the nuc­le­ar weapons labs
Robert Weaver, a re­search sci­ent­ist at Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory where U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons are de­signed, is also among those who have stud­ied the ef­fects of such det­on­a­tions on as­ter­oids. He used the En­ergy De­part­ment’s “Cielo” su­per­com­puter — which the lab calls its “front­line” com­puter for sim­u­lat­ing nuc­le­ar ef­fects.

In a video that the labor­at­ory pos­ted on You­Tube in 2012 , Weaver says his ob­ject­ive has been to un­der­stand how an “en­ergy source of this mag­nitude” — his eu­phem­ism for a nuc­le­ar weapon — could “really dis­rupt this as­ter­oid and pre­vent the haz­ard to the en­tire Earth.”

Los Alam­os spokes­man Fred De­Sousa said that Weaver could not dis­cuss his work, and the lab could not provide de­tails of his fund­ing, due to the gov­ern­ment shut­down. An­oth­er source at the labor­at­ory said a hand­ful of oth­er sci­ent­ists have also worked part-time in re­cent years on the prob­lem of Earth-cross­ing as­ter­oids, in­clud­ing re­search phys­i­cist Cathy Plesko, who has also used com­puters to mod­el as­ter­oid blast­ing.

Keith Hols­apple, an en­gin­eer­ing pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton, said NASA has giv­en him a five-year, $1.25 mil­lion re­search grant to study wheth­er an im­pact device or a nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion could de­flect an Earth-bound as­ter­oid from its path. He and oth­ers say stud­ies have shown these are the only two ap­proaches that could work.

Hols­apple says he is us­ing a device called a gas gun at NASA’s Ames Re­search Cen­ter in Cali­for­nia to study the im­pact­or, while sep­ar­ately pro­du­cing com­puter sim­u­la­tions of a nuc­le­ar blast, em­ploy­ing soft­ware ori­gin­ally de­veloped for the na­tion’s weapons pro­gram.

“When we first star­ted look­ing at this about a dozen years ago, very early on, the nuc­le­ar op­tion was the one that every­one said, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Hols­apple said in an in­ter­view. “But that was polit­ic­ally in­cor­rect, so there was a lot of hes­it­a­tion for any­one to say that this is a solu­tion.”

The lead­ing pro­ponent of the nuc­le­ar solu­tion is Dav­id S.P. Dear­born, a re­search phys­i­cist and nuc­le­ar weapons de­sign­er at Lawrence Liv­er­more Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory in Cali­for­nia, presently en­gaged in re­fur­bish­ment of the U.S. W-87 war­head — a weapon with an ex­plos­ive force es­tim­ated at more than 375 kilo­tons, or 29 times the power of the bomb that flattened Hiroshi­ma(it has about a third of the ex­plos­ive power of the largest bomb in the U.S. ar­sen­al).

Wie called Dear­born “the sort of seni­or per­son in this com­munity” of those study­ing the nuc­le­ar op­tion. “I am just fol­low­ing in his foot­steps.” Melosh said Dear­born “is reas­on­able, he tends to be pretty per­suas­ive, he comes across as not be­ing a ra­bid ad­voc­ate of nuc­le­ar weapons for their own sake. He’s quietly per­sist­ent.”

Dear­born said he was in­spired to study the nuc­le­ar op­tion a dec­ade or so ago when he heard oth­er re­search­ers tell the me­dia that nuc­le­ar weapons wouldn’t work against as­ter­oids. “That’s just not true,” he said in an in­ter­view, say­ing he was of­fen­ded by their “in­defens­ible” claims.

Un­til two years ago, Dear­born worked on the prob­lem on his own time. But since 2012 he said he and a col­league have had a small Liv­er­more dis­cre­tion­ary grant, amount­ing to per­haps sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars, for their work on as­ter­oids. He es­tim­ated that about a dozen sci­ent­ists at the weapons labs have worked on the prob­lem, but none is ded­ic­ated to it full time.

Nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives could work in two scen­ari­os, he said. Where ad­equate time ex­ists to di­vert the on­com­ing boulder, mean­ing a dec­ade or longer, a “stan­doff” nuc­le­ar blast could knock it off course. When the time to im­pact is just a few years, he says, it would be too late for de­flec­tion but a care­fully ex­ecuted nuke strike would pre­vent most dam­age.

“You frag­ment it with enough force so that the pieces spread out … [and most] miss the Earth,” he said. Small bits of rock would burn up in the at­mo­sphere, or fall as dust. “Frag­ment­a­tion may re­duce a cata­strophe to an in­con­veni­ence,” he said in a lec­ture he gave to high school stu­dents at Lawrence Liv­er­more, a video of which was pos­ted on the web in 2010.

Dear­born says there is that no need to de­vel­op new weapons and there­fore no test­ing would be re­quired. “The cur­rent, ex­ist­ing devices that we have provide all of the en­ergy that is ne­ces­sary,” he said. But he ac­know­ledged that a large as­ter­oid close to hit­ting Earth would prob­ably re­quire a weapon with the yield of about a mega­ton, one mil­lion tons of TNT, roughly the largest in the cur­rent U.S. ar­sen­al.

Tell­er’s vis­ion of pla­cing these devices in or­bit would not be prac­tic­al, he said, be­cause they would re­quire peri­od­ic main­ten­ance and would have to con­stantly shuttle between Earth and Space. He said ma­jor un­cer­tain­ties re­main, be­cause some as­ter­oids are like sol­id rocks, oth­ers like a hand­ful of pebbles held to­geth­er by grav­ity, and still oth­ers are por­ous like pumice. Dif­fer­ent ma­ter­i­als would re­act dif­fer­ently to be­ing hit with either a nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ive or an im­pact­or — a cru­cial is­sue, be­cause if one broke up in large pieces and re­mained on a dan­ger­ous path, the Earth could still get pummeled.

Melosh and Dear­born dis­agree, with Melosh as­sert­ing that since no large, Earth-killing, near-term threats are on the ho­ri­zon, “the re­main­ing smal­ler ob­jects can be dealt with by non-nuc­le­ar means, kin­et­ic de­tec­tion be­ing the most straight­for­ward” and tech­nic­ally ad­vanced.

“I think that the need for de­flect­ing very large ob­jects that might re­quire nuc­le­ar det­on­a­tions is wan­ing and that a ree­valu­ation of real­ist­ic needs is very much in or­der,” Melosh said.

Dear­born says however that he un­der­stands the is­sues bet­ter than oth­ers be­cause he is privy to clas­si­fied data. “A truly ac­cur­ate un­der­stand­ing … of the im­pulse caused by a stan­doff nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion de­pends on hav­ing ac­cess to in­form­a­tion that is avail­able only to the nuc­le­ar labor­at­or­ies,” he wrote in an email.

Dear­born said he is eager to com­pare notes on the is­sue with his Rus­si­an coun­ter­parts. “The Rus­si­ans that I have met at con­fer­ences have cer­tainly strongly con­sidered nuc­le­ar a likely op­tion,” he said.

The mys­ter­i­ous new deal with Rus­sia
Dur­ing the Cold War, nuc­le­ar weapons sci­ent­ists on both sides dreamed up many ci­vil­ian uses for nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives, in­clud­ing min­ing, har­bor dredging and even for oil and gas ex­trac­tion — like frack­ing on ster­oids. But after the de­mise of the So­viet Uni­on, al­most all of these schemes fell out of fa­vor, with the sin­gu­lar ex­cep­tion of de­fend­ing Earth with a nuc­le­ar shield.

Hugh Guster­son, a Stan­ford-trained an­thro­po­lo­gist who wrote a 1998 book about Lawrence Liv­er­more titled “Nuc­le­ar Rites: A Weapons Labor­at­ory at the End of the Cold War,” said in an in­ter­view that weapons de­sign­ers in both the U.S. and Rus­sia first began talk­ing about a nuc­le­ar de­fense against as­ter­oids as the dec­ades-long stan­doff between su­per­powers ended.

In Guster­son’s view, the tim­ing was not co­in­cid­ent­al. The weapon­eers, he said, were search­ing for new ways to use their highly-spe­cial­ized skills and the labs needed a new mis­sion. “It was a re­sponse to the loss of the weapons lab mis­sion, it was not a re­sponse to the as­ter­oid threat,” Guster­son said. After the U.S. labs found work main­tain­ing the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar weapons stock­pile without test­ing, he said, “in­terest in as­ter­oids faded in­to the back­ground” in this coun­try.

Nev­er­the­less, the agree­ment that Sec­ret­ary of En­ergy Ern­est Mon­iz signed last month in Vi­enna with Sergey Kiri­en­ko, dir­ect­or of the Rus­si­an nuc­le­ar agency Ros­atom, opens the door to co­oper­a­tion on many pro­jects — and ac­cord­ing to a Sept. 16 DOE press re­lease pos­ted on the web, one of these is “de­fense from as­ter­oids.”

Oddly, the ac­tu­al 47-page U.S.-Rus­si­an agree­ment — which the En­ergy De­part­ment has not pub­licly re­leased but which the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity ob­tained — does not men­tion as­ter­oids. In­stead it calls for the two coun­tries to use the “ex­per­i­ence and ex­pert­ise gained by or­gan­iz­a­tions of the re­spect­ive nuc­le­ar weapons com­plexes,” and lays out broad areas for po­ten­tial co­oper­a­tion on ci­vil­ian nuc­le­ar power, nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, fu­sion power re­search and the de­vel­op­ment of new nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and safety tech­no­lo­gies.

It also lists a host of highly sens­it­ive sites where joint re­search can oc­cur. U.S. sci­ent­ists can pro­pose work on high-en­ergy lasers and plutoni­um-fueled breed­er re­act­ors, for ex­ample, some of it at Rus­sia’s main weapons design cen­ters in Sarov and Snezh­insk. Rus­si­an sci­ent­ists, mean­while, can pro­pose joint pro­jects us­ing Liv­er­more’s Vul­can su­per­com­puter, one of the world’s ten fast­est, or at Los Alam­os’ Dual-Ax­is Ra­dio­graph­ic Hy­dro­dynam­ic Test fa­cil­ity, which makes x-ray pic­tures of ma­ter­i­als im­plod­ing at speeds above 10,000 mph — speeds at which the cores of war­heads smashed to­geth­er to cause a nuc­le­ar blast.

In re­sponse to ques­tions from the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity, the En­ergy De­part­ment said in a state­ment that spe­cif­ic pro­jects are to be agreed in talks between labs as well as in the White House’s U.S.-Rus­sia Joint Work­ing Group on Nuc­le­ar En­ergy and Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity, one of 19 bi­lat­er­al pan­els set up sev­er­al years ago by the ad­min­is­tra­tion as part of its “re­set” of re­la­tions with Rus­sia. A Ros­atom state­ment said spe­cif­ic re­search pro­pos­als would be agreed by the end of the year.

The De­part­ment of En­ergy has not dis­closed the pan­el’s full mem­ber­ship but its co-chairs are Ros­atom’s Kiri­en­ko and Deputy Sec­ret­ary of En­ergy Daniel Pone­man. Dur­ing its first meet­ing in Sept. 2009, the group vis­ited the gov­ern­ment site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where sci­ent­ists work with urani­um weapons com­pon­ents and con­duct oth­er nuc­le­ar re­search.

“We are mak­ing the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the agree­ment a pri­or­ity and will be re­view­ing pos­sible pro­jects soon,” En­ergy de­part­ment spokes­wo­man Keri Fulton said in an email, after de­clin­ing to ad­dress the press re­lease’s men­tion of as­ter­oid de­fense.

The Rus­si­ans will likely eagerly em­brace the op­por­tun­ity to work with the U.S. nuc­le­ar labs on plan­et­ary de­fense. Oleg Shubin, a Rus­si­an weapons sci­ent­ist who is now Ros­atom’s deputy dir­ect­or for the de­vel­op­ment of nuc­le­ar weapons, was among those who at­ten­ded Tell­er’s 1995 “Plan­et­ary De­fense” as­ter­oid con­fer­ence, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial pro­ceed­ings. Shubin co-au­thored sev­er­al of the Rus­si­an pa­pers ex­plor­ing the nuc­le­ar op­tion presen­ted at the con­fer­ence.

The state-owned Rus­si­an news ser­vice RIA Nov­osti re­por­ted March 25 that some Rus­si­an of­fi­cials are weigh­ing the use of nuc­le­ar weapons to counter the as­ter­oid threat. “In the opin­ion of Oleg Shubin, a de­part­ment­al dir­ect­or at Ros­atom, non­nuc­lear ways of de­flect­ing and des­troy­ing Earth-bound as­ter­oids may be exot­ic but in­ef­fect­ive,” the Nov­osti art­icle said.

The state-sup­por­ted Rus­si­an news chan­nel RT, aimed at for­eign, Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ences, re­por­ted a month earli­er that Rus­sia’s Academy of Sci­ences had giv­en Rus­si­an deputy prime min­is­ter Dmitry Ro­goz­in a plan for spend­ing $2 bil­lion to bol­ster an as­ter­oid de­fense pro­gram.

“De­struc­tion of an as­ter­oid in emer­gency cases may be per­formed by a rock­et with a power­ful mega­ton-class nuc­le­ar war­head,” the RT said, cit­ing the Academy as its source. “If the threat is de­tec­ted early, more ad­vanced means of chan­ging an as­ter­oid’s or­bit may be con­sidered.”

Ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate art­icle by the In­ter­fax news ser­vice, Shubin warned mem­bers of Rus­sia’s Fed­er­a­tion Coun­cil, the up­per cham­ber of par­lia­ment, at a March 12 roundtable on plan­et­ary de­fense that the world could find it­self with less than a year to pre­pare for a large as­ter­oid strike. “It will take a nuc­le­ar device much big­ger than one mega­ton to in­ter­cept an as­ter­oid of more than one kilo­met­er in dia­met­er,” he told the roundtable, ac­cord­ing to In­ter­fax. “This sci­entif­ic and tech­no­lo­gic­al task has a solu­tion in prin­ciple,” he said, ap­par­ently re­fer­ring to build­ing a big­ger war­head.

Ros­atom spokes­man Denis Per­kin de­clined in an email to of­fer de­tails about Rus­sia’s re­search agenda, but a Rus­si­an of­fi­cial with know­ledge of the new agree­ment with DOE, speak­ing on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity, said that “per­son­ally, I do not ex­clude any­thing.”

So why ex­actly did as­ter­oid de­fense ap­pear in the U.S. press re­lease giv­en out by Mon­iz? Fulton de­clined to say. But ac­cord­ing to a former DOE of­fi­cial who stays in close touch with the agency, an im­port­ant pro­ponent for new, joint work on the as­ter­oid threat between U.S. and Rus­si­an nuc­le­ar weapons sci­ent­ists was Don­ald L. Cook, deputy ad­min­is­trat­or at the En­ergy De­part­ment’s Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, where he over­sees the na­tion’s weapons labs.

Cook served for three years as the chief ex­ec­ut­ive of Bri­tain’s Atom­ic Weapons Es­tab­lish­ment be­fore join­ing the En­ergy De­part­ment in 2009. Earli­er, he was an ad­min­is­trat­or at San­dia Na­tion­al Labor­at­or­ies in New Mex­ico, which makes the non­nuc­lear com­pon­ents for nuc­le­ar weapons. Fulton said she could neither con­firm nor deny his role in the de­lib­er­a­tions.

A vig­or­ous sci­entif­ic de­bate
No one dis­putes that the threat posed to Earth by large rocks is real. Sci­ent­ists first re­cog­nized this in the 20th cen­tury, when they con­cluded that many large craters — and geo­lo­gic fea­tures like the Ches­apeake Bay and Hud­son Bay — were not the res­ult of vol­can­ic or oth­er plan­et­ary forces but had been formed in part by the past im­pacts of mam­moth as­ter­oids.

A ma­jor U.S.-led ef­fort to de­tect Earth-bound as­ter­oids began in 1995, and NASA says as­tro­nomers so far have de­tec­ted 10,200 with or­bits that bring them close to Earth, in­clud­ing about 859 be­lieved to be boulders at least six-tenths of a mile long — longer than two Queen Eliza­beth-sized ships docked stem to stern.

The largest of these, which might strike only once every 700,000 to 100 mil­lion years, could threaten civil­iz­a­tion. A blast caused by a six-mile-wide as­ter­oid that slammed in­to a spot near the Yu­catan Pen­in­sula is thought to have wiped out the di­no­saurs and most oth­er an­im­als 65 mil­lion years ago. But even smal­ler rocks — between 460 and 3,170 feet wide — can flat­ten cit­ies or wreak hav­oc.

The 60-foot as­ter­oid that ex­ploded over Chelyab­insk had the power of half a mega­ton of TNT, dam­aging 4,000 build­ings and in­jur­ing at least a thou­sand people, Rus­si­an of­fi­cials said. Ob­jects this large slam in­to the Earth on av­er­age about once every 100 years. Im­pacts in­volving as­ter­oids as tall as wa­ter towers oc­cur once every 2,000 years or so, and would have a force of ten mega­tons. Rocks the length of nav­al des­troy­ers, or about 460 feet, would land with 300 mega­tons of force, but these hit only about every 30,000 years.

For­tu­nately, none of the 859 in­ter­plan­et­ary mon­sters spot­ted so far ap­pears to be headed for col­li­sion with Earth, at least for the next hun­dred years; the tim­ing of their or­bit­al cross­ings do not co­in­cide. But as­tro­nomers es­tim­ate there may be 20,000 smal­ler but still po­ten­tially de­struct­ive as­ter­oids whizz­ing around out there, wait­ing to be de­tec­ted.

To find and pos­sibly track these more elu­sive as­ter­oids, the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences and De­part­ment of En­ergy are help­ing build the $390 mil­lion Large Syn­op­tic Sur­vey Tele­scope on a peak in Chile. The im­petus for ac­tion comes a 2005 con­gres­sion­al dir­ect­ive, and from the 152-page re­port com­pleted three years ago by a pan­el of the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil — a fed­er­ally-sup­por­ted group of em­in­ent sci­ent­ists — en­titled “De­fend­ing Plan­et Earth.”

The re­port said called for more scru­tiny of the sky and said the nuc­le­ar op­tion would be “a last re­sort,” but also said it was most power­ful ap­proach and the only one that could be used against very large ob­jects — those a third of a mile across or lar­ger — spot­ted less than a dec­ade be­fore they might hit.

“Nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives con­sti­tute a ma­ture tech­no­logy, with well-char­ac­ter­ized out­puts,” the re­port said. “They rep­res­ent by far the most mass-ef­fi­cient meth­od of en­ergy trans­port and should be con­sidered as an op­tion for NEO [Near-Earth Ob­ject, i.e. as­ter­oid] mit­ig­a­tion.” But the re­port also sup­por­ted Melosh’s ap­proach, ram­ming an as­ter­oid with a heavy ob­ject.

Liv­er­more’s Dear­born was a mem­ber of the pan­el, as was Mark Bo­slaugh of San­dia, who has also modeled the ef­fects of nuc­le­ar blasts on as­ter­oids. Many of the oth­er mem­bers were from aca­dem­ic in­sti­tu­tions, but sev­er­al rep­res­en­ted private firms with a fin­an­cial stake in space re­search, such as Ball Aerospace & Tech­no­lo­gies Corp., Or­bit­al Sci­ences and Belton Space Ex­plor­a­tion Ini­ti­at­ives LLC.

The Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity re­por­ted in Feb­ru­ary that Ball Aerospace in 2008 lob­bied on a sec­tion of the NASA budget that dir­ec­ted the agency to con­tin­ue ef­forts to “de­tect, track, cata­logue and char­ac­ter­ize near-Earth as­ter­oids and comets in or­der to provide warn­ing and mit­ig­a­tion of the po­ten­tial haz­ard of such near-Earth ob­jects to the Earth,” ac­cord­ing to Sen­ate re­cords.

Melosh also served on the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil pan­el, but says he dis­agreed with some of the re­port’s con­clu­sions. He was the co-in­vest­ig­at­or on a 2005 NASA mis­sion known as Deep Im­pact that launched an 820-pound cop­per-covered bat­ter­ing ram that gouged a crater out of the comet Tem­pel 1 in 2005, and meas­ured its ef­fect. He says the same ba­sic ap­proach could be used with as­ter­oids that threaten Earth.

And he says the nuc­le­ar op­tion would not work with ex­ist­ing weapons, but only with new, even lar­ger nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives than ex­ist in any ar­sen­al.

Melosh said pan­el­ists were lim­ited un­der the terms of the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil study to sug­gest­ing ap­proaches that could be used in the next twenty years – giv­ing the nuc­le­ar op­tion an ad­vant­age, be­cause a stock­pile of weapons is already avail­able. “I think in the long term there are much more ef­fect­ive ef­forts,” he said.

Be­sides Melosh’s bat­ter­ing ram idea, sci­ent­ists have sug­ges­ted such non-nuc­le­ar op­tions as us­ing ion en­gines, which rely on atom­ic particles for pro­pel­lant, to tug threat­en­ing rocks slowly in­to a new or­bit. Some have said that fly­ing a heavy space­craft along­side an as­ter­oid could also de­flect it. Both ap­proaches would need dec­ades to budge a big rock. A team of sci­ent­ists in­clud­ing Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia phys­i­cist Philip Lu­b­in has also pro­posed build­ing a six-mile-wide ar­ray of sol­ar-powered lasers to va­por­ize as­ter­oids.

All these ap­proaches are con­sidered dec­ades away from be­ing ready for use. But in April, the White House budget asked Con­gress to ap­prove $105 mil­lion in seed money for a ro­bot­ic NASA mis­sion to cap­ture an as­ter­oid in a big bag and drag it to an Earth or­bit, so its com­pos­i­tion can be stud­ied by as­tro­nauts. One aim of this $2.5 bil­lion pro­ject, the agency said, would be to fig­ure out how to cap­ture large, rogue, space ob­jects.

But the House Com­mit­tee on Sci­ence, Space and Tech­no­logy voted in Ju­ly on a NASA au­thor­iz­a­tion bill bar­ring the agency from pro­ceed­ing. Its re­port called NASA’s re­quest “pre­ma­ture,” say­ing the agency needs first to com­plete concept stud­ies, line up in­ter­na­tion­al part­ners and muster more sci­entif­ic sup­port.

In all, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil re­port, the U.S. gov­ern­ment long spent less than $5 mil­lion a year on as­ter­oid de­fense pro­grams, a round­ing er­ror for many fed­er­al pro­grams. About $4 mil­lion of that went to de­tec­tion and track­ing. But NASA has awar­ded at least $878,000 in the past two years to re­search­ers work­ing on so called “mit­ig­a­tion” strategies, meth­ods of de­flect­ing Earth-threat­en­ing as­ter­oids, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment grant data­base

Chris­toph­er Chyba, a Prin­ceton arms con­trol and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­pert who sits on Pres­id­ent Obama’s Coun­cil of Ad­visors on Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy, an 18-mem­ber pan­el of aca­dem­ic and in­dustry ex­perts who make sci­ence policy re­com­mend­a­tions to the White House, said that if the U.S. and oth­er na­tions work hard to identi­fy all the large as­ter­oids that cross Earth’s path, the world will have dec­ades of warn­ing time in nearly every case. That will al­low sci­ent­ists to de­vel­op and de­ploy a non-nuc­le­ar re­sponse.

He ad­ded however that there is an “ir­re­du­cible threat” of a quick­er dis­aster be­cause no sur­vey can spot every as­ter­oid, large or small, on a col­li­sion course with Earth. And as a last re­sort to de­flect these ob­jects, he said, it may be ne­ces­sary to use nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ives. “I have no qualms with re­search on de­flec­tion strategies, in­clud­ing nuc­le­ar de­flec­tion strategies,” he said. “Noth­ing will be done to jeop­ard­ize ex­ist­ing arms con­trol treat­ies. There, the game’s not worth the candle.”

Chyba said both the U.S. and Rus­sia were com­mit­ted to vari­ous arms con­trol treat­ies that ban the test­ing of nuc­le­ar weapons and their use in space. “Nobody’s talk­ing about test­ing,” he said. But Chyba em­phas­ized that a joint U.S.-Rus­si­an as­ter­oid de­fense pro­gram would be im­port­ant simply be­cause the threat is real. “This is a haz­ard I take ser­i­ously, and I think this civil­iz­a­tion needs to take it ser­i­ously,” he said.

Jef­frey Lewis, a non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­pert at the Monterey In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, said however that the new U.S.-Rus­si­an agree­ment is trouble­some be­cause re­ly­ing on nuc­le­ar weapons to stop the “hy­po­thet­ic­al threat” of a large as­ter­oid strike risks weak­en­ing the test ban and out­er space agree­ments.

“The threat of nuc­le­ar weapons is not a hy­po­thet­ic­al threat, it’s a real threat we face right now,” Lewis said. “So it sounds crazy to make it harder to fight the spread of nuc­le­ar weapons in or­der to guard against a tiny sub­set of the already pretty un­likely as­ter­oid risk.”

Dav­id Wright, co-dir­ect­or of the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists’ Glob­al Se­cur­ity Pro­gram, ex­pressed sim­il­ar re­ser­va­tions about the po­ten­tial in­volve­ment of the U.S. and Rus­si­an weapons labs, say­ing he hoped it would not be­come a “jobs pro­gram” for weapons sci­ent­ists.

“When you’ve got the weapons labs sort of push­ing for this in the vari­ous coun­tries, it starts to make me feel a little un­easy,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean it’s not a le­git­im­ate thing to do, but you want to know it’s be­ing done for le­git­im­ate reas­ons.”

Whatever the solu­tion, Melosh says, the hu­man race has the time to pur­sue safer al­tern­at­ives. “A lot more people have been re­cor­ded to have died from nuc­le­ar weapons than have been re­cor­ded to have died from as­ter­oid im­pacts,” he says.

The Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity is a non-profit, in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­at­ive news out­let. For more of its stor­ies on this top­ic go to pub­licin­teg­

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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