24 October 2008

Iowa State Hosts Asteroid Deflection Research Symposium

Iowa State visionary Dr. Bong Wie (supported by Dr. Tom Shih) brought a number of significant agencies from across the US Government and who had expertise or organizational equities in Planetary Defense together with world-class researchers to discuss how to tacke the problem of Asteroid Deflection. The group has jokingly been called the planetary defense volunteers, as at present, no organization has been directly assigned responsibility.

The conference included participants from NASA, DTRA, USAF, AFRL, DHS, DIA, LLNL, Sandia, and NSF as well as the National Academies National Research Council which is now conducting a review of NEO discovery and deflection for the Congress. It also included represenatives from several corporations such as Lockheed, Orbital Sciences, Emergent Space, as well as a number of representatives from SIGMA, a unique think tank (http://www.sigmaforum.org/) which provides pro-bono services to government agencies. Correspondents from the Discovery Channel and National Geographic were also present.

Lindley Johnson provided an excellent overview of history and current NASA efforts, and details of 2008 TC3 incident.

Mark Boslough of Sandia provided compelling computer simulations of Low Altitude Airbursts that he asserted dominated the near threat, and he also made the case that deflection of asteroids for Geoengineering (to Earth-Sun L1 then create dust to create shadow) to avert rapid climate change was even more compelling for him in the near term. He discussed some fascinating and counterintuitive physics of Airburst phenomena that require much lower mass to cause equivalent damage, can create cratering, peristent vortices at temperatures above the melting temperature of rock, and a sort of massive plume where the colder, thicker atmosphere acts as a kind of rocket nozzle for the heated air.

Topics discussed ranged from solar sails, to kinetic impactors, to gravity tugs, to antimatter, fission, and fusion devices, and both deflection and disruption was discussed. The group seemed to think that there was no one best way, but that it would be useful to have a number of tools in the tool kit, but that there was much work to be done to create the underlying tools and common scenarios to allow decisionmakers to make proper selection.

While the conference was mainly technical, a significant theme, perhaps best articlated by Dr. Pete Worden, NASA Ames director, is the near term problem is not so much technology as Command and Control (C2)...who identifies the threat, who validates/believes it, who builds it, who decides, who tests, who tells whom, etc. Links to in-situ resource utilization, space industrialization, prizes and private sector participation (Tom Matula's asteroid bounty idea, Public-Private protected IP/limited liability) were discussed. International aspects were discussed.

Near-term missions for survey (such as NASA Ames MAAT) were discussed, but it was apparent that the existing vehicles for funding such missions currently have criteria to select for the best science or exploration technology, and that critical planetary technology missions are unfortunately not compelling under these criteria.

A spirited discussion took place around the topic of whether or not the discovery program had actually reduced risk, and the role of fear and rationality in decisionmaking. For an excellent discussion of these issues, see the following essay:


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