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The Comet/Asteroid Impact Hazard: A Systems Approach

Image by Steven Ostro at JPL and a team of astronomers observing Kleopatra with the 305-meter telescope of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
by Chapman, Durda and Gold
Boulder - February 24, 2001
The threat of impact on Earth of an asteroid or comet, while of very low probability, has the potential to create public panic and -- should an impact happen -- be sufficiently destructive (perhaps on a global scale) that an integrated approach to the science, technology, and public policy aspects of the impact hazard is warranted.

This report outlines the breadth of the issues that need to be addressed, in an integrated way, in order for society to deal with the impact hazard responsibly. At the present time, the hazard is often treated -- if treated at all -- in a haphazard and unbalanced way.

Most analysis so far has emphasized telescopic searches for large (>1 km diameter) near-Earth asteroids and space-operations approaches to deflecting any such body that threatens to impact.

Comparatively little attention has been given to other essential elements of addressing and mitigating this hazard. For example, no formal linkages exist between the astronomers who would announce discovery of a threatening asteroid and the several national (civilian or military) agencies that might undertake deflection.

Beyond that, comparatively little attention has been devoted to finding or dealing with other potential impactors, including asteroids smaller than 1 km or long-period comets. And essentially no analysis has been done of how to mitigate other repercussions from predictions of impacts (civil panic), how to plan for other kinds of mitigation besides deflection (e.g. evacuation of ground zero, storing up food in the case of a worldwide breakdown of agriculture, etc.), or how to coordinate responses to impact predictions among agencies within a single nation or among nations.

We outline the nature of the impact hazard and the existing ways that a predicted impact would be handled at the present time. We describe potential solutions to existing gaps in the required approaches and structures (both technical and governmental) for dealing with impacts, including the kinds of communications links that need to be established and responsibilities assigned.

We recommend crafting, adoption, and implementation of improved procedures for informing the broader society about the impact hazard, notifying the public and relevant officials/agencies about an impact prediction, and putting in place (in advance of such predictions) procedures for coordination among relevant agencies and countries.

We recommend that pro-active steps be taken, perhaps through a high-visibility international conference and other types of communication, to educate the broader technical community and public policy makers about the impact hazard and the special aspects of mitigating this atypical hazard.

For example, the most likely international disaster that would result from an impact is an unprecedentedly large tsunami; yet those entities and individuals responsible for warning, or heeding warnings, about tsunamis are generally unaware of impact-induced tsunamis.

We also recommend that additional attention be given to certain technical features of the hazard that have not received priority so far, including the need to discover and plan mitigation for asteroids smaller than 1 km and for comets, study of the potential use of space-based technologies for detection of some kinds of Near-Earth Objects, study of chemical rockets as an approach to deflection that is intermediate between bombs and low-thrust propulsion, and further evaluation of the risks of disruption (rather than intended deflection) of an oncoming object.

Finally, we believe that international human society (and elements of it, like the U.S. government) needs to make an informed, formal judgement about the seriousness of the impact hazard and the degree to which resources should be spent toward taking steps to address, and plan for mitigation of, potential cosmic impacts.

The existing unbalanced, haphazard responses to the impact hazard represent an implicit judgement; but that judgement does not responsibly address the extraordinary and unusual consequences to nations, or even civilization, that could result from leaving this hazard unaddressed in such an arbitrary, off-hand way.

For example, we believe it is appropriate, in the United States, that the National Research Council develop a technical assessment of the impact hazard that could serve as a basis for developing a broader consensus among the public, policy officials, and governmental agencies about how to proceed. The dinosaurs could not evaluate and mitigate the natural forces that exterminated them, but human beings have the intelligence to do so.

This article is based on the executive summary of a white paper by Clark R. Chapman and Daniel D. Durda from the Office of Space Studies at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Robert E. Gold at the Space Engineering and Technology Branch of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

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Asteroid Danger Scale Developed
 Cambridge - July 22, 1999
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor has come up with a scale that assigns a number to the likelihood that an asteroid will collide with the Earth. Zero or one means virtually no chance of impact or damage; 10 means certain catastrophe.

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