The evolution of near Earth objects risk perception
Near Earth objects in the backyard
In 1993, astronomers discovered the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and the following year it struck Jupiter. Shoemaker-Levy 9, fragmented by the gravity of that gas giant, hit the planet with the force of six billion tons of TNT. One of the fragments created a cloud 12,000 kilometers across, more than twice the radius of the Earth. The damage that something of the sort could cause to the Earth would be disastrous. It was the first time humans actually saw an impact of these dimensions. Major disasters caused by meteor strikes became more than theoretically possible. They do happen and their consequences can be unimaginable.
However, though proven possible, this does not imply that it is probable. According to NASA, the risk of being hit by an object two kilometers across is about once or twice every million years. In all of human existence, there have been none of these impacts. Objects one-half to one kilometers in size strike every thousand centuries, and comets every 5,000 centuries. This makes the risk of a really devastating event quite low, or what seems to be quite low.
In 2004 astronomers found an object the size of three football fields on a trajectory that had a real chance of hitting the Earth. Its name: 99942 Apophis (the Greek name for the Egyptian god Apep, the Uncreator, a giant serpent that dwells in darkness trying to swallow Ra, the Sun.) Apophis is one of the biggest NEOs spotted which actually poses a small but significant threat. Risk analysis later demonstrated that the asteroid’s the close encounter with the Earth-Moon system in 2029 could alter its trajectory and increase its chances of striking our planet in 2036. With this, Apophis was categorized as a level 1 threat on the Torino scale of asteroid impact threats. Further analysis has decreased its threat level back to 0 in the same scale, with a current risk of 1 in 233,000. Asteroid 99942 turned out to be a close call.
It was the first time that an actual NEO discovery created a certain amount of tension among scientists and governments around the world. Even in December of 2009, the Russian government announced plans to divert Apophis, despite NASA’S recent decreased threat analysis in October of the same year. With this discovery, a disaster caused by a NEO became possible, probable, and even likely to some extent.
There is an important issue that must be considered in order to understand how risk is conceived in our times. Risk is not only to identify a threat through scientific observations. It is about the capability of doing something about a threat. Technological development is now at the necessary advanced position that a prevention scheme is possible.
But it is not only about a scientific observation, and having the technological capacity to face the threat, but also the resolve to do something about it. This means to weigh the possibility and the probability to assess and to agree to take action to prevent such an event or not. Modern societies have now the scientific knowledge and technological capacity to prevent certain disasters. This is what modern sociologists such as Ulrich Beck refer to as a risk society.
The new complex relationship concerning mankind’s own future based on destructive and predictive-preventive capabilities gave rise to what is now considered as risk. Following events led to political action possibilities built on the basis of cognitive-instrumental decisions, instead of merely political agreements, common goals or values. Examples of this may be the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, the international negotiations regarding climate change where uncertainty and probability is weighted against the possible effects and the scientific observations regarding the phenomena, and it can also be the assessment of NEO observations and protection. Then, NEO prevention becomes a political issue when budgets and decision-making processes are involved.
Nonetheless, as in NASA’s Asteroid and Comet Impact Hazards webpage, NASA official David Morrison states: “we have no way of predicting the next impact from an unknown object.” That is to say that even with today’s efforts to survey the skies searching for NEOs, the full account of possible threats is unknown. And the main reason for this is not a deficit in searching for them, but a lack of a robust searching program. And the reason for a lack of a robust program is a budget matter. (Morrison, 2004).
Should one invest a program based on a big threat with a very small probability of occurrence? The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center “Imagine the Universe” page states that:
In 2010, based on the report by the National Research Council titled “Defending Planet Earth”, the NASA Advisory Council Ad Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense presented its own report with five recommendations for an adequate detection and defense plan. However, these are just recommendations and there is currently no effective deflection plan. There are only observation and detection activities through the Near Earth Objects program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The first finding on Planetary Defense that the Ad Hoc Task Force Report states:
One of the chairs of the Task Force, former Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart, stated after submitting the report to the NASA Advisory Council, “There’s no official design of a deflection mission because there is no responsibility to do it. Right now, NASA’s assignment is only to find these asteroids. Period. That’s it.” (Atkinson, 2010) Thus, how can we evaluate such conduct from governmental officials? Is it to be negligent, or to be reasonable to assess NEO risk in such a way? This shows how risk is not only to identify a threat; it is about interpretation, perception, and evaluation of a certain phenomenon subject to important political considerations.
Near Earth wealth
Now, a last turn of the screw in risk regarding NEOs seems to be taking place in 2012. Risk now seems to be returning to a mere economical interpretation in the opposition of risk versus opportunity. Last month, the company Planetary Resources, Inc., announced their ambitious plan to mine NEOs for natural resources such as water and metals. Thomas D. Jones, a former astronaut who is an advisor for the company and is also the former chair of the Board of the Planetary Defense Task Force of the NASA Advisory Council, stated in a video released in the same month:
Thus, from one risk perception, where a detection and deflection plan is suggested for NEOs, now, they are more an opportunity than a risk.
The official webpage of Planetary Resources states that the company “is establishing a new paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the solar system into humanity's sphere of influence” (Planetary Resources, 2012 B). And perhaps they are right to call it a “new paradigm”. After the “Conquest of Space” with the Apollo program and the exploration of the Solar System, space began to be demystified and to become terrain for conquest and human influence; it can now even become a resource for commercialization and private exploitation.
In this manner, a final turn of the screw in the perception of meteors is taking place. Just as Halley demystified comets in the 18th century, now a completely desacralized, commercial perspective can be applied to NEOs. Meteors may now be a source of financial wealth. Risk is interpreted then as risk of losing money in opposition to the wealth that can be produced from resource exploitation. In Wired magazine, Eric Anderson, founder of Space Adventures and co-founder of Planetary Resources, stated, “The resources of Earth pale in comparison to the wealth of the solar system”. Thus, NEOs can now be interpreted not only as a danger, a risk, but also as an economic opportunity.
An object such as a meteor is perceived not from an objective perspective, but from a historical, philosophical, scientific, and even religious one. From being an omen that was perceived as an impending chang—a message from the gods of a future event on Earth—NEOs became part of the clockwork of the universe, to a cause of extinction, a possibility, a risk, and a source of wealth.
Perception of meteors and comets throughout history, nonetheless, has something in common: they are perceived as a risk. After seeing the comet, the king’s servants went to warn King Harold about his future threatened by William the Conqueror. If the future is written in this metaphysical perspective, and the comet is an advent of the future, the king will try to fight in vain against this omen, but in the end he will fall to the fate of the gods.
In Halley’s time, mathematics and physics were the needed perspective to demystify comets by foretelling its upcoming Earth approach. The observation of the comet, the relation to its cycles, its calculation and its prediction of when it would return were seen in the light of the fine tuning of the machinery of the Universe through physics laws. With it, humanity knew the future of the comet by calculating its eternal orbit. The Uniformity of Nature allowed it.
However, while the laws of physics do not change throughout the universe, the state of Nature does change. And these changes in Earth proved to be caused by radical catastrophes modifying the condition of natural and biological systems.
Later on Álvarez and his theory about the cause of the extinction of dinosaurs created a new possibility. Not only volcanic activity, among other natural disasters, could change the Earth’s conditions. Now, meteors and comets were perceived as a risk by acknowledging that a meteor crash can provoke a disaster of a great magnitude. So, it became a possibility. But is it probable? How often does it really happen? Should one be worried about it? Should it be considered as a risk?
In the 20th century mankind achieved the technological capacity to prevent disasters through scientific recognition of a risk. Not only to know of a threat, but to be capable of preventing it. And prevention depends on the perception of how great a risk it is considered. With comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and especially with Apophis, the risk was calculated to be greater.
But to act upon a risk does not only depend on scientific and technological capabilities. It requires a decision-making process to do or not to do something about the threat. This is the reason why NEO observation does not have the required budget to survey the skies to prevent a disaster. Through probability of a collision as a reason for political action proves how risks are not an objective observable phenomena. They are perceptions. Sometimes a risk is considered to be large and it is acted upon, as the Montreal Protocol demonstrated for the ozone layer depletion; on the other hand, the risk of climate change has not been considered more serious.
Up to this point, from omens to NEOs, perception of meteors and comets was considered from a “prevention of the future” perspective. However, technological capacities and economical resourcefulness proved that a meteor can also be seen in the light of risk/opportunity opposition. It is not only a possible danger; it is a mine, a wealth producer.
There are serious doubts about the plausibility of Planetary Resources’s mission. Nonetheless, by investing significant funds, they could supposedly get $300 billion in income from platinum exploitation alone. The risk of NEOs is then about cost-effective decisions.
In the 18th century George Berkeley once stated: “To be is to be perceived.” Comets and meteors have been observed from the dawn of humanity. Their implications have varied, depending on the metaphysical perspective, be it religious or the Uniformity of Nature principle of scientific investigations. Thus, it has taken some centuries to acknowledge the possibility of a NEO impact on the Earth, but its perceptions as a risk can change with technological capabilities and economical resourcefulness. From omen to wealth, NEOs have crossed the skies, and in them there are notions of the future, which man decides to act upon.
Atkinson, Nancy, (2010), “Is the World Ready for An Asteroid Threat? Apollo’s Schweickart Pushes for Action”. Universe Today. October 14, 2010. Retrieved on April 29, 2012.
Cuvier, George, (, 2007) quoted on The Dinosaur Hunters of History, University of Bristol, UK. Retrieved on April 28, 2012.
Halley, Edmond, (, 2012), A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets. Quoted on Dictionary of Science Quotations, Todayinsci. Retrieved on April 28, 2012.
Mann, Adam, (2012). “Tech Billionaries Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids”. in Wired, April 23, 2012. Retrieved on April 28, 2012
Morrison, David. (2004) “FAQS about NEO impacts” Asteroid and Comet Impact Hazards, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved on April 28, 2012.
NASA (1998) “Is Earth in danger of being hit by an Asteroid?” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved on April 28, 2012.
NASA, (2010). NASA Advisory Council Ad-Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense. Retrieved on April 30, 2012.
Planetary Resources, Inc. (2012 A). “Asteroid Mining Mission Revealed by Planetary Resources, Inc.” YouTube. Retrieved on April 28, 2012.
Planetary Resources, Inc. (2012 B) Planetary Resources: The Asteroid Mining Company official webpage. Retrieved on April 25, 2012.
Strydom, Piet. (2008), Risk, environment and society. Open University Press, UK.