Sep. 11th, 2016

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In another forum, a colleague noted the increasing frequency of near-Earth asteroids skipping past us close enough for the Little Green Men to wave hello. You can learn more about this (if you don't have problems getting to sleep) at NASA's Near-Earth Object program site.

Whether these objects pose a major threat depends on many complicated factors, including what the asteroid is made of (e.g., solid nickel-iron will hit hard whereas loosely compacted silicaceous compounds are likely to burn up on entry into our atmospher), the size of the object (bigger = a harder hit), the angle at which it hits (direct hits being far worse than a glancing blow), and where it hits (e.g., Antarctica vs. Mexico City; the San Andreas fault).

The fact that we still don't detect these things until they're far too close to do anything about should concern us more than (say) illegal Mexican immigration. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency was allocated a budget of ca. $14 billion in 2016; NASA's asteroid detection program in the same year had a budget of $0.05 billion. Or, if you prefer an even more egregious comparison, that's $50 million invested to potentially save our species, versus more than $100 million -- without an engine -- to $340 million for a single F35 fighter of dubious reliability and unproven airworthiness.

What does that say about our rationality as a species? Which is the greater threat to national security: Mexican immigrants taking jobs that Americans are too proud to accept and working their collective ass off to become citizens, as has been true for most immigrants from most nations or ethnic groups for hundreds of years before them, or having a few large asteroids drop on Washington? (Trick question... if Congress and the Senate are in session, it might work out to a net gain.)

Bitterness and cynicism aside, we are unquestionably seeing more reports of asteroids cruising past. Most of that is likely to be due to better detection equipment and more time and money invested in using it, but it's not inconceivable that as in the case of the more familiar annual meteor swarms we lie on our backs in the middle of the night to admire, we're passing through a period when asteroid density in our neighborhood of space is increasing. (It seems likely that density will be variable and that sometimes we'll encounter more asteroids and other times fewer.) If we're entering a denser zone, things could get scary fast, particularly since we have nothing beyond a few sketches on the back of napkins* to protect ourselves if we do spot something coming towards us.

* OK, the bitterness and cynicism seems to have been a bit more difficult to put aside than I'd expected. There are some interesting designs, in silico, but none have been tested.

Isn't it time we tried to prove the sapiens part of our species name, Homo sapiens, by being a bit more rational about where we allocate our resources?


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