Heed the Wake-Up Call from Space

The collision between Earth and an asteroid a few kilometers in diameter may release as much energy as several million nuclear weapons detonating, one after another.

The collision between Earth and an asteroid a few kilometers in diameter may release as much energy as several million nuclear weapons detonating, one after another.

Carl Jung once coined the phrase “Synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences.  July 20th was the fortieth anniversary of the first manned moon landing, the 33rd anniversary of the first robotic Mars landing, the 15th anniversary* of the first time humans saw a comet hit a planet, and the date upon which the second such impact was observed.  Of these four events two are especially meaningful.

Fifteen years ago a comet named Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted the planet Jupiter.  It left a scar in the Jovian atmosphere the size of the Earth.  Jupiter’s powerful tidal forces broke the comet into pieces that hit the planet in a volley of impacts.  If Earth had been hit by a comet that massive, life as we know it would be over.  One would think that would be a wake-up call.  Perhaps people would mobilize to prevent such an event from taking us out.

Such was not to be the case, other than a select few, humanity at large has lived in denial: Being more afraid of gays exchanging vows or cattle passing gas, then of a preventable phenomena that could cause our extinction.  But perhaps I am over-reacting here.  Shoemaker-Levy 9 was the only impact of such a massive object with a planet to be observed in recorded history.  Besides, Jupiter is the most massive planet in the Solar system, so it is more likely to attract objects like comets and asteroids.

One common reason to not be alarmed was the notion that such events are rare.  So rare that it had only happened once in recorded history.  That the most recent extinction level impact hit the Earth 65 Million years ago.  So most people (at least those with no concern for future generations) could smugly assume that no such impact would happen in their lifetime.

Well this past July 20th a discovery was made that should have been the ultimate wake-up call.  It put the infrequency argument to rest.

That is what makes this the most meaningful coincidence.

An amateur astronomer photographed a new dark spot on Jupiter. Within a day, an infrared photograph showed the glow of heat emitted from the same spot.  The consensus among astronomers is that this is the impact scar of a large asteroid or comet.

Just as disturbing as the severity of the damage is that no one even saw it coming.  This was a complete surprise.  The fact that we over-looked this object, raises the specter of other such objects being on a collision course with the Earth, but not yet discovered.

Clearly there is a need for improved detection; an Earth-bound comet or asteroid can be diverted from it’s collision course if immediate action is taken well in advance of the would-be impact.  The principle is similar to making a shooter miss her target.  If she is far enough away, a little wind or a twitch of the wrist by a fraction of a degree can make her miss, however this is not the case at point blank range.

So defending the planet has two key components: Detection and response.

While it is clear what needs to be done, it is not so clear who should do it, or how it should be done.  At present, very little is being done by anyone.

Too often people pass their responsibility on to the government, but this may be one area where it is at least constitutional.  The preamble of the Constitution of the United State of America includes providing for the common defense as one of the reasons for it being established.  Article I, Section 8, authorizes Congress to do a number of things (not all good) including provisions for the common defense.

Protecting the Earth from impact hazards, contrasts drastically from other NASA activities:  Astronomical research, space stations, and future exploitation of lunar resources are all activities that would be better left to the free market.  Furthermore, there is no Constitutional sanction for such activities.

Some might argue that the founders didn’t have impact hazards in mind, and that such an interpretation violates the principle of original intent.  Personally, I doubt the founders would want a military that could defend us from the weapons of 1700’s, but require a Constitutional amendment to protect ourselves from nuclear weapons or asteroids?

Another objection, in relation to original intent, is that asteroids differ from other threats in that we would be defending other nations in the process of defending our own.  I don’t think the founders would object to defending our country from absolute destruction by a foreign threat on the basis that doing so would have the undesirable side effect of saving billions of other people from death, and millions of other species from extinction.

All of the above statements may give the impression that I think such a defense must be provided by the government.  I don’t.  In fact I think it is entirely possible that a better defense could be developed by private corporations, in a perfectly free-market voluntary system.

A persuasive argument for such an absolutely Laissez-Faire Society is made by Linda and Morris Tannehill in their book, The Market for Liberty.  But this is a matter to be discussed if we are at the brink of moving from minarchy to anarcho-capitalism.  Clearly, this is not our present condition.

I have yet to meet a libertarian who would suggest that we make our nation vonerable to foreign invasion until we achieve a free market Utopia.  Likewise, if we require a free society as a prerequisite to avoiding extinction, then we may not live to witness such freedom.

I would love to see a society free of any coercive monopoly, but so long as we have a Constitutionally limited republic in which providing for the common defense is a core government function, it is the duty of our public officials to see that we are protected from deadly impacts.  Such an initiative should also encourage amateur astronomers, scientists, engineers, and aerospace businesses to play a key roll.

We are all in this together.

* Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke into fragments that hit Jupiter over a period of days: From July 16 through July 22, 1994.


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