The Asteroid No One Is Talking About

It either has a 0% or 92% chance of hitting Earth in 2062.

Please note: The following is at once, very much a true story with real-world consequences, and a work of fiction designed to foment the appropriate level of alarm warranted by such an impending disaster. I’ve provided links wherever possible to source the facts presented, but the determination of what is fact and what is fiction is ultimately a matter of common sense. Good luck.

In April of 2017, in the middle of another late-night of insomnia funk, I read a post on Reddit that caught my interest. The post was from a person who claimed to be a member of a team at NASA that had been working on a mission to deflect a very specific asteroid, and was leaking information relating to the mission because he, or she was upset and very worried about the Trump administration’s cancellation of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission. Within minutes of the post appearing, it was deleted. Luckily, before it disappeared I did some searching on Google to try and confirm some of the claims, but nothing came up and I abandoned my effort thinking it was a hoax.

Fast-forward to Thanksgiving break and my kids and I are watching “The Martian.” As I watched, I recalled the post on Reddit and wondered… What if I submitted a FOIA request to NASA? I began to comb through my Google search history and found my searches from April which gave me the name of the report and the date: “IAC-05-D2.8-A5.4.1 — Trajectory and Threat Analysis of 1983 SA — October 18, 1983.” I found NASA’s FOIA request site and sent an email request with all the required information.

I never expected to hear back. At a minimum, I thought I might be told that no such report existed. To my utter astonishment, on Monday, January 22nd I received a large, heavy envelope with a copy of the 58-page report from NASA, as well as two other ancillary reports. Across the top of each page of the reports are the words “Top Secret” and just below, a stamp that reads “DECLASSIFIED 01-JAN-2013.”

There are no redactions.

The report confirmed the bits I can remember from the anonymous Reddit poster, but much of the report is technical and confusing, and it left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I dug in to try and fill in some of the blanks, and what I’ve learned is beyond comprehension. I cannot believe I’m holding these files in my hands and I haven’t hardly slept in the 11 days since I received them. What I’m about to tell you is absolutely terrifying.

On September 26th, 1983 Swiss astronomer Paul Wild from the Zimmerwald Observatory in Switzerland discovered a large, D-type asteroid measuring approximately 19 kilometers across. Designated as 1983 SA and officially named as “3552 Don Quixote” in 1990, the large space rock was confirmed by NASA the following month in a report that was submitted to President Reagan. This is the report I received from NASA.

In their report, NASA warned that the asteroid had a 91.78% chance of hitting our planet on the morning of June 21, 2062. Most important, the report stated that “Should 1983 SA strike Earth the result would be catastrophic, likely resulting in a mass-extinction event with billions of human casualties around the globe.”

Umm... Yikes?

While this may seem like cause for alarm, it is important to note that a second group of astronomers from MIT separately determined that the asteroid will miss Earth by a comfortable margin. Their findings were published a week before the NASA report was sent to the President.

The existence of 1983 SA has been known throughout the scientific community since its discovery and the MIT risk analysis calculation is widely accepted. In fact, it is referenced in NASA’s own JPL Small-Body Database. Today, most scientists now cite the MIT report and assert that 3552 Don Quixote has a 0% chance of striking Earth, but something in the original report from NASA gave the President cause for concern.

In April of 1984, President Reagan approved the formation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) (aka. “Star Wars”). This was billed as a missile defense system intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons. However, this was not the organization’s only objective. The program would later be renamed “Ballistic Missile Defense Organization” by President Clinton in 1993, then “Missile Defense Agency” (MDA) in 2002 by President George W. Bush.

In 2013, President Obama would approve a new mission for NASA called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The program was presented as a generalized program for redirecting Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) and not directly related to 3552 Don Quixote. The leadership team for ARM was entirely comprised of former directors at MDA, and ARM was to work closely with MDA in the development of their mission.

Included in the package of reports I received is an ancillary report written by a Presidential commission assigned to work with SDIO. This is where I began to really worry.

The Presidential Commission was approved on April 12, 1983, the same day as SDIO. The team was tasked with studying 3552 Don Quixote and developing theoretical counter-measures that could nudge the asteroid from it’s current path. The commission submitted its report on September 4th, 1985–nearly two years from the date of discovery.

Findings from the Commission’s report were grim. In order to alter the path of 3552 Don Quixote, a significant amount of force would need to be applied at a very great distance from Earth, and within the next 27 years (from 2018). The technology to deliver a payload capable of delivering the necessary force at the required distance did not (and still does not*) exist, and the commission’s report estimated the cost to be more than $350 billion ($860 billion in 2018 dollars) to develop and launch three separate missions. (This was for redundancy. Three strikes, and we’re out.)

The effort would also require a level of international cooperation never before seen. Most notably, “A close relationship with Russia will be necessary in order to exchange advanced research and development results, including classified information relating to advanced space propulsion technologies.” Considering the fact that this report came during the height of the Cold War, we can only assume that the nature of the risk must have been very serious.

Further complicating matters, it appears there was disagreement within the leadership ranks of NASA on the commission’s recommendations. In a letter submitted to the commission (included within the appendix of the commission’s report), Lew Allen, then director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:

“The Commission’s report states that ‘Given the [asteroid’s] rate of rotation (7.7 r/h), lateral thrust applied to 1983 SA is not possible. Only a direct lateral strike from a high-mass object traveling at great velocity could alter the trajectory…’

The Commission recommends a payload of 480+ metric tons[**] traveling at a velocity of 30+ km/s. This recommendation relies on theoretical structural materials and thruster technology that not only do not exist, but are not currently in development.”

Put simply, it seems he didn’t believe there was anything we could do.

To put this into perspective, the amount of thrust required to lift 480 metric tons into outer space is equivalent to four Saturn V rockets. Furthermore, in order to accelerate the payload to reach the asteroid within the required timeframe and at the minimum velocity, the equivalent thrust of a fifth Saturn V rocket would be required.

Until today, the commission’s report has essentially been sitting on a shelf collecting dust, lost in the annals of NASA’s massive database of forgotten academic records.

There is some good news. There are scientists working on ways to deflect asteroids. Much of the once “theoretical” technology imagined in 1985 to alter the path of 3552 Don Quixote now exists. In fact, in 2014 the European Space Agency achieved a remarkable breakthrough by successfully landing the Rosetta probe on a comet. However, these efforts fall far short of the commission’s recommendations. There is no effort underway to develop and deploy the necessary propulsion needed to launch the required payload and reach the asteroid within the remaining window of time to alter its course. The threat to Earth remains.

* The SpaceX Falcon Heavy only has a payload capacity of 64 m/t. NASA’s next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) Block 2 has a payload capacity of 130 m/t and isn’t scheduled for launch until 2029.)

**(The commission’s recommended payload calls for 480 metric tons of osmium due to its hardness and density. Osmium is one of the rarest metals on earth and it’s extremely difficult and expensive to produce.)

We now know there is at least some possibility of the asteroid 3552 Don Quixote hitting Earth in the year 2062. Scientists disagree on how likely this is, and there is disagreement on whether or not we can do anything about it. But, given what we know and the strong language used by NASA scientists and President Reagan’s actions, I hope you would agree that we must do everything we can to try and alter the trajectory of 3552 Don Quixote.

At this point I must confess, there is no declassified report from NASA in my possession, and there is no chance 3552 Don Quixote will hit Earth. I know you’re angry… This was a long read and I worked hard to make the story as convincing as possible, but please stick with me for a minute. There is a point to all this.

The story I presented above is virtually identical to the debate surrounding climate change which many, if not most scientists agree could end with catastrophic loss of human life and mass extinction.

It used to be that some members of Congress would challenge the scientific community’s consensus on global warming, calling it a hoax. (Remember Senator Inhofe’s snowball speech?) Today, most have shifted their position and generally accept the fact that the planet is warming, but they insist that this is natural; that human activity has had no impact on the climate and that there isn’t anything we can do to affect the climate one way or the other.

The planet has been warming — on and off — since the last ice age, when glaciers covered much of North America.” — Congressman, Tom McClintock (R-CA04)

I’m not going to delve into the research supporting the idea of anthropogenic climate change, or post graphs showing the strong correlation between CO2 output from humans and the hockey-stick rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. (here and here if you’re curious) Instead, let’s for a moment accept the idea that there is, as Tom McClintock often says, “a great debate within the scientific community.”

If there’s even a slim chance that human activity is contributing to climate change, wouldn’t it be prudent to hope for the best, but assume the worst and take action?

Republican members of Congress have argued that the impact of moving to clean energy would cause the loss of jobs and hurt the economy. However, most economists say otherwise. Here we have another debate on who the experts are and which predictions to believe. Defenders of oil, coal, and natural gas insist we would lose more jobs than we gain with a switch to renewable clean energy. Proponents of renewable energy insist we would gain more jobs. For the sake of not arguing, could we at least agree that a shift to renewables would likely result in neither jobs lost or gained?

There are a couple facts that no one is debating. First, we currently rely on non-renewable sources of energy that are getting more difficult and expensive to extract; sources that will eventually become totally depleted. Second, non-renewable energy is dirty. (Would you rather be locked into an airtight garage with an internal combustion car running, or an electric car running?)

Would you rather look at this:

Or this:

Today is February 2nd. The average high temperate for my city on this day is 58 degrees. The record high, set in 1976 was 70 degrees. At this moment it is 73 degrees outside my house; a new record high. I literally just went outside in my cargo shorts and laid down to bask under the winter sun.

For those of you who might be thinking “Well, it happened once way back in ’76, so this isn’t unusual,” consider this: Scientists in Alaska have discovered that the permafrost in the Arctic that has been frozen for over 100,000 years is beginning to thaw. As it thaws, ancient bacteria are waking up and eating the once-frozen bits of plants contained in permafrost. Like most living organisms, when they eat, they fart. What they’re farting is CO2 and methane–gasses directly linked to the greenhouse affect causing our planet to warm. As this progresses, it is possible that we may trigger a feedback loop over which we would have zero control. The thawing permafrost will drive the greenhouse effect, warming the planet and thawing more permafrost. At that point, Congressional Republicans will be right. There will be nothing we can do.

There is a metaphorical asteroid bearing down on Earth in slow motion, and we’re busy arguing about whether or not we can do anything about it. Republican members of Congress argue that there’s nothing we can do and we shouldn’t even bother trying; that we should continue with our dirty energy habits as usual and hope for the best.

I disagree.

The Boy Scout in me is screaming “BE PREPARED!” and it seems incredibly irresponsible, if not downright foolish to not take every action to at least try to make a difference. Like any potential biblical disaster leading to mass extinction, we must hope for the best, but assume the worst and take action.

I write about EdTech and education, but mostly this is where I rant about politics. On Twitter @prsmith2009

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