The Plans to Use Nuclear Weapons to Blow Up Incoming Asteroids

Douglas Birch, The Atlantic
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Chef Jose Andres Campaigns With Clinton
5 hours ago
White House Weighs in Against Non-Compete Contracts
6 hours ago

"The Obama administration on Tuesday called on U.S. states to ban agreements prohibiting many workers from moving to their employers’ rivals, saying it would lead to a more competitive labor market and faster wage growth. The administration said so-called non-compete agreements interfere with worker mobility and states should consider barring companies from requiring low-wage workers and other employees who are not privy to trade secrets or other special circumstances to sign them."

House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
7 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

No Lobbying Clinton’s Transition Team
10 hours ago

Hillary Clinton's transition team has in place strict rules to limit the influence that lobbyists could have "in crafting the nominee’s policy agenda." The move makes it unlikely, at least for now, that Clinton would overturn Obama's executive order limiting the role that lobbyists play in government

Federal Government Employees Giving Money to Clinton
10 hours ago

Federal employees from 14 agencies have given nearly $2 million in campaign donations in the presidential race thus far, and 95 percent of the donations, totaling $1.9 million, have been to the Clinton campaign. Employees at the State Department, which Clinton lead for four years, has given 99 percent of its donations to the Democratic nominee.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.