NASA is preparing to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid at 16,000 miles per hour, in a pioneering attempt to nudge it off course.
But the yearlong mission scheduled to begin on Nov. 24 is raising an existential question for scientists and security experts: whose job is it to defend the planet against a possibly life-ending space rock if one was headed our way?
The answer right now is no one.
NASA maintains the likelihood of a large asteroid striking Earth is a “once a millennium type of event.” But the space agency is also using new telescopes and other star-gazing techniques to locate thousands of previously undiscovered “near-Earth objects” each year with orbits that will eventually take them into our galactic neighborhood.
More than 27,000 have been located so far and more than 2,700 this year alone, including one the size of the Pyramid of Giza that was discovered in September and whizzed by just 2 million miles from Earth. (That’s considered a near miss; for reference, the moon is about 240,000 miles away).
But no agency or international body is in charge of deflecting an asteroid that might be on a path of destruction, either by pushing it ever-so-slightly off course to change its orbit, or blasting it with a barrage of missiles.
“No one is tasked with mitigation,” said former Air Force space strategist Peter Garretson who studies planetary defense. “Congress did put in law that the White House identify who should be responsible, but fully four subsequent administrations so far have blown off their request.”
The mission will attempt to change by a fraction the trajectory of Dimorphos, an asteroid orbiting the larger Didymos, which poses no danger to Earth; its orbit will bring it to within 4 million miles, about a century from now.
But the upcoming test has prompted calls for more international research and coordination in the event countries around the world need to band together to act far more quickly than the 11 years it took NASA to prepare the asteroid test, which goes by the acronym DART.
“There are three million asteroids and we have not a freaking clue where they are and they are flying around us,” said Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation, which is building a database to track near-Earth objects. “We’ve barely made a dent.”
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a member of the Armed Services and Commerce committees, is also a leading advocate for greater preparations for a possible asteroid strike, which he says he considers among the “unique threats to national security.”
He told POLITICO the potential of such a cataclysmic event demands that the U.S. government do more “to bolster federal planetary defense efforts.”
The National Space Council headed by Vice President Kamala Harris will hold its first meeting on Dec. 1. But officials declined to outline the agenda and whether planetary defense will be among the body’s policy priorities.
The role of the military
Amid the lack of agreement about which agency should ultimately be in charge, there is also a brewing debate over how much of a role military forces should play.
While some such as Garretson support giving the Pentagon greater responsibility, others are adamant it would be a mistake to further militarize space with a mission that by definition is not about sovereign borders but defending all of humanity.
“It is not a space race,” said Thomas Jones, a planetary scientist and former astronaut. “We can put together an international response. That’s the way to do this.”
Otherwise, he warned, there will be “disinformation and rivalries and wasted resources.”
Yet some military powers are already going their own way. For example, Japan tried to blast the surface of an asteroid in 2019 with little effect. And the United States in 2014 revealed to congressional investigators it’s retaining some excess nuclear warheads in the event they are needed “in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids.”
The debate over the military role has grown since China’s National Space Administration adopted planetary defense as one of its core missions in April. Chinese government scientists published a paper this month proposing an “assembled kinetic impactor” delivered by missile to defend against what they call a “major threat to all life on Earth.”
“With this approach, China is moving from planetary defense to planetary offense,” warned Namrata Goswami, who studies the Chinese space program and is an author of “Scramble for the Skies,” about the new space race.
She fears the Chinese plan amounts to “planning ahead to deflect an asteroid with a rocket that can be utilized for other offensive purposes as well, like targeting a cluster of adversary satellites.”
“If China jumps ahead of the U.S. in regard to planetary defense,” she added, “it will be a game-changer.”
The U.S. military is also paying more attention. The Space Force signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA last year in which they agreed to work more closely on “space domain awareness,” including tracking near-Earth objects.
“However, unlike China, the U.S. has not stated that planetary defense is of strategic priority,” Goswami said.
'A policy priority’?
Congress in recent years has steadily taken more action to require the government to study the threat and encourage federal agencies to make planetary defense a greater policy focus.
And the Trump administration ordered federal agencies to step up their efforts. In 2018, the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan called on NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Air Force to “identify opportunities in existing and planned telescope programs to improve detection and tracking by enhancing the volume and quality of current data streams, including from optical, infrared, and radar facilities.”
It also increased NASA’s budget for planetary defense three-fold to $150 million a year, including to finance the DART mission.
But Goswami believes that “for planetary defense to be effective,” the National Space Council should make it a “policy priority” and direct NASA and the Space Force to develop “deflection capabilities.”
U.S. Space Command, which is responsible for military space operations, says it’s reconsidering its role in planetary defense. “Planning efforts at USSPACECOM for Planetary Defense are pre-decisional,” the command told POLITICO in a statement, asserting that for now it is following NASA’s lead.
One of the top military proponents over the years for giving the threat more serious attention is now a three-star Space Force general serving as deputy head of Space Command.
“Whose job should it be to divert the threat, and how?” Lt. Gen. John Shaw asked in a paper he co-wrote as a major in 2002. “It is our view that an organization the people have placed their lives in the hands of for the past several centuries — the US military — is best suited to provide protection from either natural or man-made threats."
“Little capability against such a natural threat exists today,” the paper added, “but it is a mission that should attract increased attention as we expand our ability to control space.”
Shaw declined an interview request through a spokesperson.
"Who is going to be in the lead? We don't know yet," said Nahum Melamed, a senior engineer at the Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded think tank. "It is a discussion that is ongoing. There is no clear-cut answer as to who is in charge here."
‘We need to find them faster’
Jones, the former astronaut, said he believes there’s still sufficient time for the global community to come up with a more comprehensive strategy that relies on many nations.
He predicted there will be ample notice to act before a large asteroid is identified heading for Earth. A more imminent threat, he said, is likely to come from a smaller asteroid — like one that struck Russia in 2013 — or a comet that would require evacuating the predicted area of impact but not pose the kind of existential threat that scientists say killed off the dinosaurs.
“We will get warning and have enough time,” Jones said.
But not everyone agrees. "The likelihood of being hit by a significant sized asteroid is very low, but the consequences are so severe," said Melamed. "The problem is a lot of these objects have very short lead time. Sometimes they are being discovered after their close approach.... We are going to be faced with very short warning or no warning at all."
The Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping program, a venture between the B612 Foundation, Google and Analytical Graphics Inc., is constructing a “Google Maps for space” to track near-Earth asteroids.
With “the data that we have from the tools we are building right now … there will probably be a couple of near-Earth asteroids [discovered] every week,” Remy said. “On average we are finding 2,000 near-Earth asteroids a year. That is going to change radically when [the mapping program] goes live.”
NASA also acknowledges that the current picture of space is too incomplete to fully assess the potential threat. "While no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance to hit Earth for the next 100 years," the agency says, "only about 40 percent of those asteroids have been found as of October 2021."
That means “we need to find them faster,” Remy added. “There is a lot more we can do to put plans in place. I hope we get there before there is one that has our number. It could be in 100 years. It could be tomorrow.”
Remy pointed out that NASA’s DART mission has a number of international partners, but they are not fully coordinated.
For example, NASA is relying on an Italian satellite designed for imaging asteroids, but the European Space Agency’s HERA mission that will study DART’s impact on the target asteroid follows two years later.
“The fact that these two missions are not going at the same time was a timing issue for budget approvals,” Remy said. “Imagine if we had an asteroid coming our way and half the mission was held up in the funding by critical allies? We will likely need several nation-states to participate in a future deflection mission and the government moves slowly.”
“While DART can go it alone with this technology demonstration mission,” she added, “what will happen if we need to act together for something urgent?”
More planetary scientists are also sounding the alarm. “Would there be something on the plate if someone said, ‘five weeks from now we are going to get hit by Apophis,’ which is going to come around on Friday the 13th in April of 2029?” asked Philip Lubin, a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a leading asteroid researcher. “There is nothing on the table. Nothing.”
But a major challenge for policymakers will be how to overcome the deep level of distrust here on Earth to put a planetary defense plan in place.
Rusty Schweickart, a former Apollo astronaut who co-founded the B612 Foundation and has advocated for a greater role for the United Nations, recently outlined how “the political aspects of the whole issue of planetary defense are very serious.”
“I think our experience over the last year with Covid and the whole incredible anti-vax and disinformation in social media — all of that is going to pale in comparison, it seems to me, with the level of disinformation and distrust of experts that’s going to arrive … if the asteroid world says, ‘Oh, we’re going to predict the impact of this guy on such and such a date and such and such a time.’”
“I mean the level of distrust in institutions and scientists and experts is going to be fierce,” he added.