The Ultimate Movie Plot Threat: Killer Asteroids

There’s not enough money to track them:

NASA officials say the space agency is capable of finding nearly all the asteroids that might pose a devastating hit to Earth, but there isn’t enough money to pay for the task so it won’t get done.

The cost to find at least 90 percent of the 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids and comets by 2020 would be about $1 billion, according to a report NASA will release later this week. The report was previewed Monday at a Planetary Defense Conference in Washington.

Congress in 2005 asked NASA to come up with a plan to track most killer asteroids and propose how to deflect the potentially catastrophic ones.

“We know what to do, we just don’t have the money,” said Simon “Pete” Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The hardest risks to evaluate are the ones with very low probability of occurring and a very high cost if they do. Large-scale terrorist attacks are like that; so are asteroid collisions.

Posted on March 22, 2007 at 6:03 AM35 Comments


Edward T March 22, 2007 6:41 AM

And if we found one, what could we do? I think Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood are already booked.

brainfart March 22, 2007 6:43 AM

Maybe they should have used some of the money wasted in Iraq for this purpose! Imagine how they could have searched for asteroids for HUNDREDS of years with all that money wasted because of some faith-based WMDs!!!one!11

Nicholas Weaver March 22, 2007 6:53 AM

Although if history is a past guide, there is about a 1 in 300M chance for a complete extinction-level event in a given year, and probably much nearer odds on nuclear-incident level (Tungusta comes to mind as an example, say 1 in 10^4).

Plug them into however much you value a human life to get how much you should spend.

Roxanne March 22, 2007 7:07 AM

My guess is that there is some “We don’t want to know” in this decision. If an asteroid is coming to earth, there’s really not much we can do about it. Shoemaker-Levy taught us that breaking up the comet just means more places take hits. Gravity is going to win, after all; the asteroid is going to intersect with earth; the only question is how, and the answer is pretty much inevitably some flavor of “Bad.”

If they don’t know, no one can blame them for the aftermath.

New Orleans has to be underscoring this idea. They’re taking a lot more grief for Katrina than they did for Camille, because they knew Katrina was coming, but they didn’t have the predictive ability in 1969, and so it could get shrugged off, and whatever help they got was gravy. Today, we’re blaming the Federal government for failures in the Gulf region, when in both cases it was pretty much nature’s fault. If you don’t know it’s coming, it’s not your fault when it hits.

Ergo, don’t go looking for trouble, er, asteroids.

Erik N March 22, 2007 7:26 AM

Unlike terrorist attacks, you can observe and track an asteroid and calculate the probability of a close encounter accurately and give a date for the event in time for plans to be developed on how to counter the impact.

The certainty of the predictions depend on the accuracy of the data which is well defined. So, you can actually evaluate the threat.

The problem is that data inaccuracies means predictions becomes less reliable the further into the future. All the identified objects needs to be continuously tracked and calculations updated accordingly.

But the process is rather mechanic, continuously locate identified objects, update data calculate new estimated orbit.

It’s physics – it’s not insanity or fundamentalism.

greg March 22, 2007 7:59 AM

Yes, and you can have a lot of time to do something about it for the most part. Like 20+ years.

We (Humans) can do a lot in 20 years if we want to. Remember that we have only had comptuers for about 50 years. And cars for about 100. But look at how many highways we have built in that time.

Although I can’t say that its a good investment. NASA is really really good at spending money badly. Maybee someone else can do it cheaper.

Oh my firends house got hit by one. Ok so it was only a sofa destruction level event, but it could have killed more people in NZ than terriosim. (now they are just level pegging at 0/0).

Student March 22, 2007 8:24 AM

It is not only movie plot security, it’s computer game security! (Take Free Allegiance for example 🙂 )

But more seriously, I can imagine worse places to spend money. This offers some serious research instead of just attacking privacy protections. Not a good use of the security budget, but still…

Plotting asteroids will give some interesting research data and extra money for astronomy is not a bad idea.

Given a few years of warning I am sure that humanity can come up with a proper way of deflecting an asteroid, if the other option is extinction.

Clive Robinson March 22, 2007 8:45 AM


“Given a few years of warning I am sure that humanity can come up with a proper way of deflecting an asteroid, if the other option is extinction”

Yup right after we sort out this global warming thingy that our politicos are getting all red necked about…

Seriously there are several major types of geological disaster mankind faces on the earth alone (Earth quakes, volcanoes, caldera colapses etc etc) there are to many of them to be able to monitor and there is most definatly not the resources to do it.

In many ways the money would be better spent on disaster recovery for less serious events, oh and getting mankind out of the “single egg basket” by moving on to more than one planet…

Albatross March 22, 2007 9:02 AM

At any cosmic distance at all, the chances of any particular thing striking the Earth are infinitesimal. If we have any significant warning at all, it’s not difficult to deflect an asteroid from striking the planet. At any considerable distance, the slightest nudge will cause the asteroid to miss the planet.

The bigger threat to the Earth? Well, the existing technology needed to rendezvous with an asteroid

in order to DEFLECT it, is the same technology needed to DIRECT an asteroid towards the Earth.

Want a movie threat? What’s more likely – that a killer asteroid would randomly strike Earth during the brief geologic period during which humanity exists and is vulnerable…. or that an innocuous asteroid would be aimed AT the Earth by some party wishing to hold the planet hostage?

I think we need to consider this possibility when we consider building asteroid-deflection technologies…

nzruss March 22, 2007 9:02 AM

It is one thing calculating that it will hit the earth, it is another to figure our exactly where it will hit on said earth.

The asteroid landing in the ‘right place’ could actually solve a few of the worlds problems.

Of course it depends on whose problems one is trying to solve….

Adam March 22, 2007 10:33 AM

Yeah, but terrorists aren’t really much of a threat to anyone. Oooooh, they might be able to kill a few thousand people at once! Wow. Big deal.

An asteroid could wipe out humanity. All of us. Forever.

Yeah, it’s unlikely. But the consequences are the worst possible, and because we might be able to give ourselves enough warning to be able to do something about it, it’s worth looking at.

You could look at scanning the sky for such asteroids as a form of intelligence-gathering if you want 🙂

gameoverman March 22, 2007 12:10 PM

“Nuclear” winter cataclysm options:
1) Asteroid
2) Super volcano
3) Global Thermonuclear War
4) Global warming frenzied scientists blowing sulfur into the atmosphere

Unfortunately, number 4 has the highest probability for our extinction within the next decade.

Joe Buck March 22, 2007 12:29 PM

The answer to the question “what could we do?” is that, with enough warning, we could deflect an asteroid’s path so that it misses. If accurate orbits are plotted for all the big ones, you get months of warning.

The Bruce Willis solution is wrong; if you blow it up, the pieces still hit. Instead, you attach enough rockets to one side so you can change its path by just a hair, alter its path by half a degree, and it’s enough.

Jim March 22, 2007 1:15 PM

I hope Al Gore does a movie warning us about it. Not only does the planet have a temperature, I mean a fever, now we face getting smashed up by these things.

Jim March 22, 2007 1:34 PM

PORTAGE, Pa. — The giant blades on some wind turbines at a Cambria County wind farm are showing cracks, but officials are not sure what’s causing the problem.

My guess. Tiny little asteroids are hitting them.

Harry S. Stamper March 22, 2007 3:46 PM

Billions of $ for NASA. I wonder if an interested amateur project could be formed, or something akin to SETI@home? (Bonus: The first person to identify the Earth-destroying object gets to rename it!)

Although Bruce Willis won’t be able to take care of the problem, I’m sure Liv Tyler will step in.

Charles March 22, 2007 4:36 PM

This is ridiculous. In recent years, many new asteroids have been found by amateurs, not professional astronomers. The professionals don’t have time for it.

The equipment necessary to do this job only costs a few thousand dollars, and is getting cheaper all the time. All you need is a medium-sized telescope (12″ to 14″) capable of being driven by computer, a CCD camera, and a laptop computer with some software. That plus a dark-sky location to operate will do the trick.

What NASA should do is to post a reasonably large bounty for each new near-earth asteroid found. The amateurs would handle the problem for about 0.1% of the cost.

Lee March 22, 2007 4:51 PM

quote – “Shoemaker-Levy taught us that breaking up the comet just means more places take hits.”

Yes – but I’m thinking 10 or so fragments of a large asteroid would cause less problems globally than the thing hitting as a whole – spread out/dilute the carnage so to speak….. hopefully!

Ctrl-Alt-Del March 22, 2007 4:56 PM


I like your thinking. Let’s follow it to a security theatre conclusion.

Step 1: Develop asteroid-moving technology.

Step 2: Leak it to a known terrorist organisation. They probably won’t have the resources to use it, but that doesn’t matter, because next …

Step 3: Publicise the fact that terrorists have this technology and may already be planning to use it.

Step 4: Sit back and watch the US government throw billions of rapidly inflating dollar into the “stop the Terrorist asteroids” bucket.

Anonymous March 22, 2007 6:36 PM

If they can only find 90% of 20K near-earth asteroids, what about the other 10% not found?

How do we know one of THOSE isn’t headed straight for us?

Anonymous March 22, 2007 6:42 PM

The terrorists who have this technology will use it to steer a smaller non-cataclysmic asteroid so it hits the Earth at a place that causes a cataclysm.

For example, the winner of the Movie Plot Threat contest had Grand Coulee Dam being breached. Well add this asteroid threat and things get REALLY scary. The evil terrorists could crash an asteroid into the dam, and even a small asteroid would blow the hell oot of the dam.

And they don’t even have to hijack a plane to do it.

Sky-Ho March 22, 2007 8:01 PM

Iraq military action costs the US about 1.4 billion per week in order to “fight them over there” so that they won’t swim the Atlantic and fight us over here.

and some of you think NASA “wastes” money?

averros March 23, 2007 4:44 AM

and some of you think NASA “wastes” money?

Absolutely. Having in vicinity a grand-betting idiot with more money than common sense does not excuse a village drunkard. He still spends all money in pursuit of mindless stupor.

Something-to-call-me March 23, 2007 6:00 AM

Lee: “Yes – but I’m thinking 10 or so fragments of a large asteroid would cause less problems globally than the thing hitting as a whole – spread out/dilute the carnage so to speak….. hopefully!”

The total amount of energy carried by the asteroid is the same, regardless of how many fragments it’s divided into. If that total amount of energy is sufficient to cause global effects, it’ll be likely to do that in any case, even if in slightly different ways.

However, breaking up a smaller asteroid (capable of a creating a local disaster, but not a global one) might reduce the damage, if broken up into small enough pieces. If not, it could be significantly worse (consider nuclear bombs – a cluster of smaller nukes can be far more destructive than a single big one).

Student March 23, 2007 9:53 AM

@Clive Robinson

Most politicians are quite good at solving problems when the solution is quick, clear and goes BOOM.

It’s those slow and steady threats where the cost is distributed over a lot of places they can’t handle.

C Gomez March 23, 2007 3:07 PM

If to this day they do not have the money, and there are no plans to give them the money, then it sounds like the right security tradeoff is being made. Therefore, something right is being done for a change.

Person March 24, 2007 10:57 PM

With regards to blowing the asteroid into little pieces, my humble logic tells me that this means a larger area-to-volume ratio, which leads to more friction in atmosphere, which leads to more mass burnt and less mass hitting the ground.

Earth gets hit by tiny asteroids all the time, but most of them simply evaporate in the atmosphere without reaching very far.

Can anyone tell me if I am mistaken?

Clive Robinson March 26, 2007 10:07 AM


“to more mass burnt and less mass hitting the ground”

Correct but all the burnt mass and it’s energy is now in the atmospher and has to go somewhere, which is where the fun of “radiation transport” mechanisms comes in (think Atom Bomb).

In reality a very very large amount of detritus from space hits the earth every day infact if you look on the roof of the average house you might well find some even if it rains a lot in your area.

The real killer is the heat a super heated atmospher is not something you would want to be in for a large number of reasons. As has been shown by the global warming debate the excess energy would take quite a while to leak back into space, or be absorbed by the planet and it’s water mass. It kind of makes “not in your life time” a bit near to the mark.

Anonymous March 26, 2007 11:49 AM

“At any cosmic distance at all, the chances of any particular thing striking the Earth are infinitesimal. If we have any significant warning at all, it’s not difficult to deflect an asteroid from striking the planet. At any considerable distance, the slightest nudge will cause the asteroid to miss the planet. ”

Not so simple.

At cosmological distances, only a roughly statistical impact probability can be predicted (incomplete knowledge of all influencing positions and forces, including changes in solar wind). Indeed a ‘push’ could actually cause a collision.

Josh March 26, 2007 5:19 PM

Several comments have suggested that there is nothing that can be done if an asteroid is predicted to hit earth. This isn’t so: if the collision is many years in the future, tiny perturbations are enough to avoid it.

One suggested method is to paint one side of the asteroid white (or black). You’ld be amazed how little material it takes to do this if the material is finely powdered and you work in vacuum. The differential light pressure can provide enough of a nudge to avoid collision, if it can be controlled.

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