On March 19th 2013 the U.S. Congress heard testimony from NASA about the potential of the most important planet in the universe being wiped out by an asteroid. The odds were put at 1 in 20,000 that an asteroid big enough to destroy a continent or an entire planet would impact Earth….this year. While this may seem like a low risk, the ramifications of an event like this could be catastrophic, wiping out the only known intelligent life in the universe. In 2005, Congress directed NASA to detect, track, and characterize 90 percent of these near-earth asteroids larger than 459 feet feet (140 m). The space agency’s chief, Charles Bolden, said today that NASA was unlikely to meet that deadline given its current budget.
NASA has identified and is tracking 9,600 so-called near-earth objects, and believes it has identified 93% of those larger than a kilometer, and 60% percent of those larger than 300 meters in diameter. The good news is that none of those detected is on a collision course with Earth. Only 10% of the smaller “city killers” have been identified
“Our estimate right now is at the present budget levels it will be 2030 before we’re able to reach the 90 percent level as prescribed by Congress…You all told us to do something, and between the administration and the Congress, the bottom line is the funding did not come,” Bolden said. When asked what we would do if an asteroid would impact in three weeks Bolden noted, “the answer to you is, if it’s coming in three weeks, pray”….” The reason I can’t do anything in the next three weeks is because for decades we have put it off.”
One can argue that if we were wiped out, surely there are other intelligent beings out there in the vast expanse of space but one can also argue intelligent life is not all that common. If you look at the commonly accepted method to calculate the amount of not only life but intelligent life in the universe, the Drake equation, it shows us that changing one simple variable can greatly change the amount of potential life, and the amount of intelligent life in the universe. Until we know for certain, we need to treat Earth, and mankind, as a very special and precious commodity. We may well be very, very rare.
When thinking about the concept of life in the universe, we need to remember that on our own blue marble there is a mechanism that resets the evolutionary clock at fairly regular intervals. This of course is impacts by large asteroids. Dinosaurs were here for millions of years. Generation after generation of evolution allowed the dinosaurs to develop intelligence, and to then develop a technological intelligence. They did not. They may have attained some level of intelligence but technology eluded them. They could not know they were about to be wiped out, and could not do anything about it. Nature tested them to see if they had evolved and they failed. The next generation of species was given the chance to take the test again…us.
How ironic would it be for us, a self-aware species evolved enough to know we are at risk, to have the evolutionary clock once again reset and to not have done anything about it. Except of course to realize how ironic it was to have been wiped out and know that, had we planned properly, we could have done something about it. Mankind would not have fared any better than the dinosaurs and nature would have removed us from the equation allowing the next generation of life to have a shot at it.
Congress today assessed, correctly, that we need to do something about this. Currently we (the United States) is requesting to spend twenty million dollars in 2013 on this problem, versus four million in 2012. To put it in perspective, the 2012 U.S. Budget was 3.5 trillion dollars. That is a lot of zeros: $3,500,000,000,000. The $20,000,000 requested in 2013 for detection of an asteroid impacts represents 0.00057 percent of the 2012 budget…on something that has the potential to end life on Earth. I won’t go into what the rest of budget was spent on but it seems like perhaps, maybe, we could do better. I will leave it to others to calculate the percent that represents of all the world’s governments.
Mankind is at a crossroads. We have created incredible technologies. Specifically in the last few hundred years of our existence. We have seen the majesty of the universe as none have before us. We’re finding planets in other solar systems, landing robots on other planets, and are now on the cusp of sending one of our creations, the Voyager spacecraft, out of our solar system and into the expanse of intergalactic space. All for naught if we foolishly allow ourselves to be exterminated. I say allow because that is exactly what it will be. We do indeed have the technology to detect and protect ourselves from the majority of these world killers, if only we apply our new found technology, and our intelligence. If we do not, perhaps the evolutionary clock will be reset again and the next intelligent species will act more…intelligently.