One of the real-world threats facing the U.S., indeed all people and life on Earth, is posed by asteroids and comets. There have been regional and global impact events throughout Earth’s history. And while we’re clearly no longer in the period of frequent large impacts, the future threat is not zero. Eventually, another object from space will take aim at Earth. Whether or not it hits, and how much damage it causes, is now partly in the hands of people. We have the technology to detect and track Near Earth Objects. We have the technology to change the risk of those objects impacting the planet. Those capabilities and more were the subject of study by the Ad-Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense, which just delivered a report to the NASA Advisory Council.
The task force’s five recommendations are:
Organize for Effective Action on Planetary Defense: NASA should establish an organizational element to focus on the issues, activities and budget necessary for effective planetary defense planning; to acquire the required capabilities, to include development of identification and mitigation processes and technologies; and to prepare for leadership of the U.S. and international responses to the impact hazard. Acquire Essential Search, Track, and Warning Capabilities: NASA should significantly improve the nation’s discovery and tracking capabilities for early detection of potential NEO impactors, and for tracking them with the precision required for high confidence in potential impact assessments. Investigate the Nature of the Impact Threat: To guide development of effective impact mitigation techniques, NASA must acquire a better understanding of NEO characteristics by using existing and new science and exploration research capabilities, including ground-based observations, impact experiments, computer simulations, and in situ asteroid investigation. Prepare to Respond to Impact Threats: To prepare an adequate response to the range of potential impact scenarios, NASA should conduct a focused range of activities, from in-space testing of innovative NEO deflection technologies to providing assistance to those agencies responsible for civil defense and disaster response measures. Lead U.S. Planetary Defense Efforts in National and International Forums: NASA should provide leadership for the U.S. government to address planetary defense issues in inter-agency, public education, media, and international forums, including conduct of necessary impact research, informing the public of impact threats, working toward an internationally coordinated response, and understanding the societal effects of a potential NEO impact.
The task force found that a planetary defense program plan is likely to require an annual budget of approximately $250 million to $300 million per year during the next decade and $50 to $75 million thereafter. That seems like a pretty small investment to ensure our planet is actively defended from catastrophic impacts.