Jeffrey LewisAsteroids and Arms Control

Final NEAR Shoemaker Descent Images of
Eros from February 2001 at 1,150 meters.

Nothing says holiday cheer like the reminder that total planetary annihilation is a statistical fact of existence in our universe.

Astronomers spotted an near earth object after it passed about 36,000 km by the earth. The asteroid—2004 YD5—was about 5 meters wide and posed no danger to the earth. (2004 VW14, which passed by yesterday at about 2 million km, was larger at 400-800 meters and would have done considerably more damage.)

The news was hard to miss here in Peoria, because 2004 YD5 was spotted by Stan Pope, a Caterpillar retiree from Morton, IL. (The local coverage was classic boosterism, coupled with regret that fame is fleeting. “The scary thing is it was not discovered until it passed the Earth,” Eric Clifton, past president of the Peoria Astronomical Society, told the Peoria Journal-Star. “There is a chance we may never see it again.” Silly me. I thought the fact that it might have hit the earth was the scary thing.)

What does this have to do with arms control? More than you might think. The threat of collisions with asteroids and other near-earth objects is a classic red-herring opponents of arms control use to justify all manner of space weapons system.

Edward Teller, and later Lowell Wood, used to argue that the United States shouldn’t agree to bans on nuclear testing because planetary defenses needed nuclear tests in space. A couple of years ago, a research paper (Planetary Defense: Catastrophic Health Insurance for Planet Earth) prepared for the Air Force concluded:

As the planetary defense problem becomes better understood and accepted within the global community, and as potential solutions, including a PDS, are developed, it will likely become necessary to selectively renegotiate existing treaties that currently prohibit testing and using weapons in space.

Candidates for “renegotiation” included the Outer Space and the Limited Test Ban Treaties.

A more subtle approach has been to advocate NEO research as a less controversial mission profile for the development of missile defense technologies. Clementine I and II, which were predecessors to the Experimental Spacecraft System satellites, were missile defense programs with civil space missions. Pete Worden wrote a short essay proposing that surveillance “is a portion of the NEO problem that should be urged upon and given to the US Military.” Pete proposed a series of microsatellite missions for the task, but warned “I must caveat that not everyone in the DoD is as eager as am I to take on the NEO task!”

And Richard III was not made of stone.

I’d like to know what’s out there too, but not at any cost.