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The Economics of Armageddon

It’s been the subject of countless Sci-Fi films, Saturday Morning cartoon shows and comic books: Some megalomaniacal mad scientist has conceived an evil plan which could bring about the destruction of the entire planet, holding the nations of the world to ransom and demanding an exorbitant amount of money –or a ridiculously low one, depending on the evil genius’ keeping up with current inflation– to stop the Doomsday clock from ticking its last tock, OR ELSE!

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[Insert evil laughter here]

In all these scenarios, the hero saves the day before the leaders of the United Nations are forced to open their wallets or write a giant check. Luckily for us, supervillain masterminds don’t really exist in our world –unless you count corporations *cough* Monsanto *cough*– but that doesn’t mean our civilization is not threatened by catastrophes of apocalyptic proportions, either those of our own making, or the curve balls thrown at us by Mother Nature.

By far the most plausible of the Sci-Fi type scenarios that keep scientists awake at night are “killer asteroids.” What started as the plot of one of the cheesiest films in Bruce Willis’s career –and that’s including Look Who’s Talking— has now risen into threat that is also being taken seriously by policy-makers, who now have come to understand that when it comes to big-ass pebbles crashing down from the sky, it’s not a question of ‘If’ but ‘When.’

Killer asteroids is the subject of the cover story in this month’s Newsweek magazine. The article, written by Nina Burleigh, gives a quick yet insightful view on what we currently know about these interplanetary threats, and the plans which are currently discussed and evaluated in order to prevent our species to suffer the same fate of the dinosaurs.

The experts Burleigh interviewed all seemed to agree that there are indeed some things we COULD try once we found a dangerous asteroid coming our way. What is ‘dangerous’ when it comes to these objects? NASA considers half a mile in length to be a ‘civilization-ending’ asteroid, yet even half of that is enough to cause “epochal damage.” I myself would even venture that a considerably smaller rock could still trigger a really diresome scenario, depending on WHERE it landed –say, a vital commercial hub like New York, Frankfurt or Hong Kong, which could potentially de-stabilize our global economic infrastructure in ways that would make the 2008 recession look like a trivial hiccup in comparison.

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It’s also curious to see how this topic shares many similarities to our medical battle with cancer, in which early detection is crucial, and has a huge weight in the future prognosis of the problem. Everybody unanimously agrees we need more eyes on the lookout for cosmic party-crashers, and yet NASA and the rest of the international space agencies still need to do the best they can with what little money comes their way.

But suppose we got lucky, and detected the damn thing with enough time –i.e. years– to come up with a proper plan. What next?

There are basically 3 contingency plans currently explored to defend ourselves against a killer asteroid: We either nuke it, kick it or tug it. The 1st one is self-explanatory enough: Make use of our nuclear arsenal in order to destroy rock before it comes too close; it’s probably the one which has the higher potential of creating dangerous side-effects, like radioactive fallout raining over populated areas, or turning one big, dangerous object into a cloud of smaller ones –a single high-caliber bullet into buckshot pellets.

Kicking the asteroid would mean deflecting its trajectory through a collision with a high-kinetic object. Ideally you only need to slightly alter its orbit in order to celestial dynamics to kick in and take it away from a collision course with Earth. Tugging it is an even more elegant solution: Using a spacecraft to rendezvous with the uninvited guest from outer space and gently ‘pulling’ it from its original trajectory using nothing but the mass of the vehicle as a ‘gravity beam’. Physics, bitches!

Like I said, the feasibility of these 3 scenarios would greatly depend on whether we detected the asteroid in time, with plan A (Nuking it) being the most likely ‘last-resort’ solution. But inevitably, all of these plans and any other future ones we might conceive stop at the same roadblock:

Who’s going to pay for it?

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Apollo astronaut Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, who in 2002 founded the B612 Foundation intended to proselytize about the threats of killer asteroids and the technologies needed to avert them –the foundation’s name was inspired by Antoine de St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince— is the first one to admit that, despite the collective scare we all received 2 years ago with the Chelyabinsk meteor, politicians and voters are not scared enough:

“I fear there’s not enough of a collective survival instinct to really overcome the centrifugal political forces,” he says. “That is, in a nutshell, the reason we’ll get hit. Not because technically we don’t know it’s coming, or we can’t do something about it.”

Awareness-raising events –like the ‘Asteroid Day‘ programmed for the 30th of this month, in which celebrities like Queen guitarist (AND astrophysicist) Brian May and Bill Nye ‘the Science guy’ are scheduled to participate, can only achieve so much –Live Aid, anyone?– so what would it take for the world to finally see the threat?

Rendezvous with Rama

As much as I loathe to admit it, but there doesn’t seem to be any other scenario than an actual impact over a major urban center. Burleigh’s Newsweek article mentions a ‘war game’ celebrated last Spring, in which astronomers and scientists from all around the world participated in the hypothetical scenario of a killer asteroid traveling toward Earth, and how the governments of the world would try and coordinate a response. The fact that this exercise in the outskirts of Rome is particularly synchronistic, given how the late Arthur C. Clarke chose to start his widely-acclaimed novel Rendezvous with Rama with an asteroid which ends up wiping out the northern cities of Padua and Verona in the year 2077 –even more synchronistic, Clarke chose the date of September 11 for this fictional tragedy, which caused the death of 600,000 people and a loss of more than a trillion dollars in damages.

The catastrophe turns into a wake-up call for all of mankind, Clarke writes, and the Spaceguard project is enabled to locate nearby objects in time (eventually the system  detects a ginormous alien ship traveling through the Solar system, but that’s for another post).

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The sad fact of the matter, my dear Coppertops, is that when it comes to preparing for the rainy days ahead, we humans really do suck at showing a modicum of proactivity; specially with something which takes many years to unfold. Once again the cancer analogy comes in handy:  We have only to look at the lousy way in which we have tried to deal with Climate Change in the last quarter of a century, to realize that WHEN (not IF, remember?) we finally detect a big-enough rock with our number on it, instead of joining forces to face this threat as one Humanity, we will probably squander whatever time we’ll have prior to impact with petty infighting and conspiracy theories claiming it was all a NWO hoax.

Which gets us back to the main question: How to pay for a global defense shield against killer asteroids. The carbon tax credits proposed as a solution to Climate Change was decried by many as ponzi scheme of global proportions; but even if you are convinced with the evidence presented to confirm the reality of CC, the carbon credits are still an ill-conceived financial solution. Likewise, taxation will probably not be the way to go to solve our killer-asteroid problem either.

What’s left then? IMO the (more) ideal solution is something that’s already occurring as we speak: The arrival of commercial space industries.

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If you’ve been following MU and similar websites, then you already know many private companies are starting to look at space as a profitable final frontier. James Cameron and other bold venture capitalists are beginning to join efforts and pour resources into ways to successfully mine asteroids in search of exotic minerals. It is reasonable to assume that the same technologies which would allow these companies to exploit the resources of extraterrestrial bodies, could also be used to defend our planet against rogue real estate coming our way.

These private enterprises are moving slowly, but perhaps there could be a way to increase the momentum, by proposing the nations of the world to give them ‘carte blanche’ on the property rights of any NEO (near Earth object) which could potentially become a threat to the planet. Maybe that would give those companies, coupled with an initial boost of public funding, enough of an incentive to activate an early detection system and develop Arthur C. Clarke’s Spaceguard project.

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True, such a scenario could potentially turn those space-mining companies into entities more powerful than the governments of the world itself –mimicking in a way the Weyland-Yutani corporation depicted in the Alien franchise. A future in which our grandchildren have to learn the names of planet Starbucks and the Microsoft Galaxy is not very appealing… but then again, neither is total extinction!

Capitalism proved to be a proficient-enough system to defeat Nazism and Soviet Communism. Will it be able to protect us against a warmer planet and deadly asteroids? This is a cliffhanger we’ll all have to to keep watching –whether we like it or not.

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[Insert evil laughter here]