Saturday, 30 June 2018, “Asteroid Day”, it was my very great pleasure to meet and brief, for the first time, members of a very important technical community in Los Angeles: Planetary Defense. I didn’t quite know what to expect. So this post gives you my first impressions.
I discovered that Asteroid Day itself is a worldwide phenomena. February 2014, Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist and guitarist for the rock band QUEEN, was working with Grigorij Richters, the director of a new film about an asteroid impact on London. May composed the music for the film and suggested that Richters preview it at Starmus, an event organized by Dr. Garik Israelian and attended by astrophysicists, scientists and artists, including Dr. Stephen Hawking. These collaborations and others led to the launch of Asteroid Day in 2015.
In Los Angeles, last Saturday, the event I attended was hosted by the Los Angeles – Las Vegas Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Brian May wasn’t there, but there were about 40 people in the room representing serious thought on the question of planetary defense against asteroids from all walks of life: university professors, aerospace industry experts, spacecraft designers, a pharmacist, a high school student, a film producer, and many others
I had approached this request to speak with some trepidation. What could Planetary Defense experts need from a person focused on the sustainment of complex systems after they had been designed and fielded? In pondering that question, I came up with the title and the theme: “Predictively Effective Planetary Defense Systems” and “Keeping highly complex ICBMs viable since the 1950’s yields lessons in how to design a planetary defense system”.
Gratifyingly, my spiel was listened to with great interest and the questions afterwards, and at the end of the day, were insightful and fun. I will tell you more about that in next week’s post. You can find my charts here: Planetary Defense 2018.
I took notes as I waited to speak so I could tailor my talk to information conveyed in these earlier presentations. Here are a few items from my notes:
During the entire event, filming was going on. I even signed a waiver. Philip Groves, the producer of the IMAX film that was in progress (“Asteroid Impact”) was sitting near me and I found his perspectives fascinating. Interestingly, major funding for the IMAX film is coming from the Knights of Columbus. I am a member of the St. James Parish Knights of Columbus Council in Ogden Utah. So I know that the Knights run a top-rated life insurance program. I know they try to invest the funds into socially helpful work. But they are also savvy businessmen. Since Philip convinced the Knights to invest, I expect this film to turn a profit. Look for it at your local museum or planetarium IMAX in mid-2019. If I survive the cutting room floor, I’m the guy in the black Strategic Air Command ball cap.
It turns out there have been 700 asteroids hit the Earth in the last 30 years large enough to be detected. Thankfully our atmosphere burns up most of these impacts. We have satellites that can show all of these the impacts as they hit the upper atmosphere. The biggest in that 30-year period was the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013. See the video. Other videos you can easily find on youtube show damage on the ground from this asteroid to be similar to an earthquake, such as store shelves knocked over. It occurred at the same time that a very much larger asteroid missed the Earth, yet analysis shows they were actually on very different trajectories. Two unrelated asteroids, one detected and missed. One undetected and hit. Hmmm.
Things are relatively calm now, but since the Solar System travels around the Milky Way at 500,000 miles per hour, it is not a stretch to imagine we could hit a more crowded patch. The vast majority of asteroids, nowadays however, come from within our Solar System. Most are kept in check by Jupiter’s gravitational influence. But some make their way towards us.
The most famous asteroid collision, Chicxulub Crater, is the one that “killed the dinosaurs”. Evidence for this theory is vast and convincing. My favorite story is the Ring of Cenotes at the impact site. A gravity scan by oil exploration teams was an early indication that something important happened here. See photo.
Scott Manley (no, he wasn’t there either) has some great videos on line. This one shows asteroids being discovered over a period of years. Turn on the sound. A voice-over by Scott tells us why the various patterns appear. For instance, new satellites came on-line or certain views away from the sun are more productive.
Many professional societies play major roles. The next International Academy of Aeronautics Worldwide Planetary Defense Conference will be held in Washington D.C. April/May 2019. It is held every 2 years. In 2017, it was held in Japan. One of the great technical debates is whether the use of nuclear bombs is a good idea. Surprisingly, some key Japanese members were convinced that, for certain types of asteroids, it is. There are still some compelling arguments against their use. Many of these discussions came up during the AIAA LA-LV conference, especially during my talk. More next week.
Finding and tracking asteroids is a big part of defense. One method briefed showed that the CMOS sensors (used in cell phones) are better for this than CCD sensors (used for astronomical sightings). A method using CMOS and video game software proved surprisingly effective at finding and tracking asteroids. Orbital tests are planned with hopes for 3 satellites in heliocentric orbits in about 10 years.
Asteroid mining is a strongly related area of scientific and business research. There is a good business case for traveling to a select class of asteroids, capturing one (at a time) in a balloon, literally digesting it using the power of the sun, and then bringing it back to Earth to be used for fuel.
A couple more fun facts I picked up at random:
Meteorite hunters using metal detectors tend to scramble magnetics fields in their finds, making them a bit less valuable if you wanted to infer origins from the fields.
There is a scheme someone cooked up to put humans in orbital colonies to save the human race in case of a Planetary Catastrophe. The colony would be called Asgardia. Sure, the home of the Norse Gods. Why not put your hubris on full display?
More next week: What I presented and the ensuing discussions.