“Vermin of the Skies”
The JPL scientist in charge of tracking incoming asteroids tells us if we should be worried.
- By Heather Goss
- AirSpaceMag.com, February 05, 2013
Courtesy Don Yeomans
(Page 3 of 3)
In a footnote toward the end of the book you mention that President George W. Bush’s press secretary got an email in 2008 with the subject line, “HEADS UP,” about an asteroid headed towards Sudan. The scientist suggested that the administration warn the Sudanese, but no one did because the U.S. had no formal relations with them. This seems particularly interesting when you write in a later chapter that some body like the United Nations should have an internationally approved plan at the ready. How likely do you think it is that they can all get together and agree on something?
In a couple of weeks I’m leaving for Vienna, where the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is meeting, and that’s what we’re going to talk about: getting an international plan in place and accepted by the United Nations so that when an object is found on an Earth-impact trajectory, there will be an international agreement that says “this space-faring nation would be charged with deflecting this object for the benefit of the others,” or something like that. The protocols and guidelines have not yet been written, but they are being discussed and hopefully they will be written in not too long, so we won’t have to start this process after we find an object.
There aren’t that many space-faring nations, and it seems like there are endless possibilities for last-minute negotiations -- for example, what if it’s going to hit a region with which the elected asteroid-deflecting nation is at war?
It’s very interesting, and the space lawyers will have to get involved. If the deflection is unsuccessful and it was to hit in Europe, but the deflection didn’t quite make it and now it’s going to hit in the United States: that’s the so-called Deflection Dilemma. You can’t just blast [the asteroid] off the surface of the Earth, it moves slowly from the impact site across the Earth, and then off the edge of the Earth, if you’re successful. But there is a chance you would move the impact point from one country to another if your deflection attempt was not successful.
You wrote that “human exploration is usually driven not by the quest for knowledge but for commercial gain.” Does that mean you support asteroid mining?
It’s not something that would be commercially viable right now, but these objects are rich in platinum group elements. They’re rich in iron and nickel, they’re rich in ices – water ices and hydrated minerals – so they could be processed for water, and water can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, which is rocket fuel. You wouldn’t go out and mine these materials to bring them back to Earth – that just wouldn’t be a good business model, because you could do it cheaper with minerals here on Earth. But as launch costs decrease and the pockets of platinum group elements and others that we now have on the Earth’s surface get less and less, it might one day make sense to mine this material and bring it back to Earth. But it would probably make more sense if you’re going to build structures in space. If you’re going to build outposts in space then you’re going to have to look around for resources in space, you’re not going to build structures on the surface of the Earth and then launch them. It’s just too expensive. You’re going to build watering holes and fueling stations full of water, and then you’d like to take advantage of these natural resources that are already there.
There’s one asteroid out there that’s particularly special to you, right? Can you tell us about 2956 Yeomans?
[laughs] It’s actually a pretty garden-variety, ordinary asteroid, I’m afraid. I was hoping it would be a binary or an Earth-threatening object, but it’s just a silicate rock. The advantage, of course, is that this rock will be out there for millions of years, far longer than I’ll be around, so you get a certain immortality.