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Ron Patton | June 25, 2018
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Last week, President Trump took a ribbing over his idea of a Space Force and the Pentagon may be grumbling about the idea, but there is a serious story that has been hidden from public view.

First of all, the establishment of a Space Force was the culmination of months of frustration over what he felt was a lack of Pentagon action on his initial suggestions about the topic.

The announcement last Monday surprised many military officials, senior aerospace industry executives and lawmakers as it went against well-known opposition by Pentagon leaders to the idea of establishing a new branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The truth is that the “Space Force” publicity is a distraction form a very real concern about Planetary Defense and once again NASA was caught off guard over the weekend when a powerful ‘fireball’ asteroid exploded above Russia.

This was the second one in five years.

The space rock was speeding at more than 32,000 miles per hour when exploded over Earth, triggering a blinding flash across the early morning sky.

The 13 Ft wide object slipped past NASA’s asteroid warning systems and was first spotted by sensors designed to catch nuclear explosions after it struck the planet’s atmosphere with a force of three kilotons.

NASA warned last week of a vulnerability in its Near Earth object detection equipment. It is making it harder for the space agency from picking out potentially deadly objects approaching from Earth’s ‘day side’ until it is too late.

The Space Force has been under scrutiny for integrating the proposed department’s joint war fighting functions in the solar system; however, the planetary defense department has made some quick moves to explore the threat of Apollo or Apollyon class asteroids that could impact the planet.

In the past, NASA has admitted there are many Apollyon class asteroids lurking in places where they cannot always be seen and many times they have to rely on amateur astronomers to get the word out. By then, it may be too late.

The recent fireball that was detected over Russia exploded over near the town of Lipetsk, between Moscow and the Ukrainian border. The impact of the meteor with Earth’s atmosphere was picked up by US government sensors used to detect nuclear explosions, among other things.

The impact of the meteor with Earth’s atmosphere was picked up by US government sensors used to detect nuclear explosions, among other things.

A similar event happened n 2016.

On Feb. 6, 2016, a chunk of what has been called Unknown Interplanetary Material, plunged into Earth’s atmosphere and exploded about 19 miles above the Atlantic Ocean. The explosion was detected 600 miles outside of Sao Paulo Brazil. It was moving at over 9.6 miles per second. It had a diameter of 23 feet and the energy released was equivalent to the detonation of 13,000 tons of TNT.

One again it was detected by its sound—it was not seen.

The report and information on the event were given to NASA by the U.S. Government. Detecting atmospheric explosions is most likely a high priority of several branches of the U.S. military, so a fireball of such magnitude could have been easily picked up. Satellite imagery and infrasound atmospheric microphones could both be used to detect an impact like this.

Now, we know that near earth objects pass over the earth all the time, but Apollo class asteroids are tricky to predict or even detect obviously.

A week ago, while Trump was talking about his Space Force, and the media was laughing at him – NASA, along with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several other governmental agencies issued a federal planning document for Near Earth Objects.

The 20-page document is titled “The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan,” and organizes and coordinates efforts related to the Near Earth Object efforts within the federal government during the next 10 years to ensure the nation can more effectively respond in case this type of very high-consequence natural disaster should occur.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program funds asteroid detection and tracking efforts at observatories across the U.S. and in space and collaborates with other observatories around the world.

The NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, maps and publishes the orbits of all detected objects so that everyone can understand the potential risk for impact. NASA also is studying approaches for deflecting or turning aside or disrupting (breaking up) asteroids. By completing the action plan, NASA and several other departments and agencies will evaluate and begin development of various approaches and technologies for defending Earth from a significant impact.

The Planetary Defense Group known as DAMIEN, which stands for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound Near-Earth Objects is working with the Interagency Working Group of the Committee on Homeland and National Security.

I believe that both the creation of the Space Force and DAMIEN’s findings are certainly worth investigating.

The plan establishes five overarching strategic goals to reduce the risk of NEO impacts through improved understanding, forecasting, prevention, and emergency preparedness. The plan will:

• enhance NEO detection, tracking, and characterization capabilities
• improve NEO modeling prediction, and information integration
• develop technologies for NEO deflection and disruption missions
• increase international cooperation on NEO preparation, and
• establish NEO impact emergency procedures and action protocols.

Achieving these five goals will, for a very modest government endeavor, dramatically increase the nation’s preparedness for addressing the NEO hazard and mitigating any threat.

A planetary defense network designed to spot incoming space rocks failed to pick up the asteroid, that exploded over Russia yesterday.

These are Earth crossing asteroids that are just a little shy of becoming “Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.” While Potentially Hazardous Asteroids can be classified as such without even hitting the Earth, the potential of doing so is far greater and the asteroid cannot come any closer; if it does, then we have a major problem.

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids are currently defined based on parameters based on the asteroid’s potential to make an absolute threatening close approach to the Earth. To be specific, this means all asteroids with an Earth Minimum Orbit Intersection Distance of 4,650,000 miles.

That is considered a close cosmic shave. Then, there are the so-called sweeper rocks that wind up being pushed into Earth’s trajectory by even bigger comets of meteors that don’t even come close to Earth.

We will be needing a Space Force or a Space Corp for planetary defense that goes beyond the bleeding of Earth battles into space.

In fact, the next step in planetary defense is already underway at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. There, a team is developing a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, which is scheduled to launch around 2020. It’s the first real-world embodiment of the HAMMER concept.

The HAMMER would be like a planetary defense shield: a fleet of spacecraft that would either bash directly into a dangerous asteroid or set off nuclear charges to deflect it.

It has not been said as to whether or not the Space Force would be in charge of running to the toggles and switches in aiming spacecraft and crashing them into asteroids in hopes of deflecting them from Earth impact.

The 1,100-pound DART craft has thrusters, a camera, navigation software, and that’s about it. Its design can be simple because its job is simple: find an asteroid and fly into it at full speed. Such a device is technically known as a kinetic impactor, but you can think of it as a battering ram in space.

In short, warning scenarios, kinetic impact weapons like DART would not be enough. Therefore, the HAMMER study explored the use of nuclear warheads, just as in movies like “Armageddon.”

However, the catch is that due to political reasons planetary defense cannot run any nuclear tests in space.

So, would this be a good enough reason to lift the restrictions for having nuclear missiles in space?

If they make the move to do so, there is yet another reason for a Space Force where nuclear weapons would have to be regulated for asteroid deflection only.

Russia and China are already leery of the Space Force proposals and are watching with interest over how it will be used.

Congress is also allotting more funding for asteroid surveys, increasing the likelihood that we’ll have enough warning; however, the rocks that have been exploding above us after the Chelyabinsk explosion in 2013 have slipped through the cracks and it appears that all of the efforts will be like a huge game of cosmic snooker.

I know most Americans are thinking that this does not affect them because two of the major explosions happened over Russia. However, NEO impacts anywhere can cause major problems for the entire planet.

NEO impacts of varying size could have major environmental, economic, and geopolitical consequences detrimental to the United States, even if the impact is outside U.S. territory. The direct effects from a NEO impact depend on its size, composition, and impact speed. Small, rocky NEOs are likely to explode before hitting the ground, resulting in an airburst that could produce a wider area of moderate damage compared with a similarly sized metallic object that would strike the ground and cause heavier, more localized devastation.

Objects close to and larger than 1 kilometer can cause damage on a global scale. They can trigger earthquakes, tsunamis, and other secondary effects that extend far beyond the immediate impact area.

Our biggest impact may or may not be an ELE or extinction level event; however, a massive amount of damage and death would affect the entire planet in many ways indescribable.

Now, according to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan, the Trump Administration’s 2018 National Strategy for Space recognizes the NEO hazard, and directs agencies to undertake multilateral efforts that promote U.S. scientific, economic, and security interests, including mitigation of space environmental hazards such as near-Earth objects.

National Space Policy directs the NASA Administrator to “pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet.

Scientifically, it is useful to divide the impact hazard into two types of events: those with local consequences and those with global consequences. On the low end of the local scale is the fall of meteorites that seem to have a propensity for destroying property for example, there have been stories recently about space rocks that have damaged homes.

Progenitors for such meteorite falls are probably bodies only a few meters across. Bodies 50 meters across having modest strengths are likely to strike the ground intact, creating a crater and a local explosion.

Even if we had a major impact that effects a populated area the survival rate would be very high.

Assuming that the cosmic impact is not misinterpreted as a hostile nuclear attack set in motion by a real or imagined enemy, the remaining civilizations of the world would presumably remain stable and would be able to supply aid and comfort to the afflicted area.

Most estimates suggest that an impacting stony asteroid about 1 mile across or larger marks the threshold energy for causing a globally devastating event. However, there is much uncertainty associated with making this size estimate, and realistic guesses fall between 0.3 and 3 miles. One part of the uncertainty is the lack of knowledge about how our planet’s ecosystem and our society would respond to the sudden and severe stress wrought by such an impact.

Cosmic impacts fall into the category of events that are extremely rare but are of high consequence when they do occur. An airliner crash is an example of an infrequent but high-consequence event that seems to grab international attention. A nuclear power plant event like what happened in Japan is another example.

We are feeling the effects of the Fukushima power plant explosion but since the events of the day-to-day is not really being disrupted we have forgotten about the impact the radiation has had on the ecosystem.

It is still a disaster that continues to pollute the oceans with dangerous radiation.

Thus, it would seem that we, as a society, are attuned to low-probability but high-consequence events. However, extremely low-probability events such as cosmic impacts are beyond our personal and even historical experience, requiring that we take a long-term view in evaluating the hazard and relating it to everyday life.

Written by Ron Patton

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