I’ve been scratching my head for a long time, trying to figure out why NASA hasn’t been taking the idea of preventing asteroid impacts more seriously.
So I’m pretty chuffed that the European Space Agency is looking into saving our collective skins. They’ve being studying the feasibility of a mission to test methods of asteroid impact mitigation, including a very very cool space mission they’ve dubbed Don Quijote (first proposed in 2002, and may launch sometime after 2020). It’s actually two separate spacecraft: one to impact a small near-Earth asteroid, and another to monitor the event carefully to see what happens, including how much the orbit of the asteroid was changed.
ESA and European science are surging at the moment while we’re cutting about 10% of NASA and 25% of astrophysics. But something like Don Quijote is actually one of the things even space skeptics like Gregg Easterbrook admit NASA should be doing. The likelihood that we will get hit by an asteroid large enough to destroy our civilization is very low. But the cost of such an event would be incalculable. Let’s call it a quadrillion dollars (1000 trillion). Preventing a one-in-a-million asteroid hit would then be worth about a billion. That’s not counting for the loss of life, history, culture and Elvis recordings.
And this is the best way to do deflect asteroids. Well, no, not really. The really best way would be to chuck Rosie O’Donnell at it. But some people would regard that as inhumane (to the asteroid), so Don Quijote is the next best thing. And the idea is so simple and so fucking cool that you almost have to do it, whether there’s an asteroid coming at us or not. Even a small impact on an asteroid, if done early enough, could deflect it well out of harm’s way. Or, if you like, maybe into some other planet’s way. I don’t like the way Mercury’s been looking at us lately.
Of course, it’s just a study right now. And, unfortunately, it’s likely to remain that way. Despite Plait’s enthusiasm, ESA has never taken on something this big and they have a tendency to make big plans, drink lots of coffee, spend a lot of money and ultimately do nothing (see Hermes, Columbus, everything else). But maybe this will spur some activity in Washington. An asteroid stopper would be a much more useful and practical mission than a voyage to Mars. And are we really going to let the Euro-weenies save the Earth? Bruce Willis wouldn’t stand for it.