Curtain Raiser

Beware the Sneaky Visitors, Colltalers

There was some big news this past week, but most of us were not paying any close attention to it. No, it wasn’t the latest Republicans’ defeat in their 7-year effort to deny affordable healthcare to millions of Americans. Or mad-hatter antics of Trump’s White House and his ‘despicables.’
Neither the scary North Korea’s latest ballistic rocket launch, nor the disturbing body count of murdered environmental activists in Brazil. If you were following these or other important issues to you, you’re exonerated. We should all be excused for ignoring news about asteroids.
This one, though, should’ve been big news: a rock three times the size of the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in Feb 2013, was detected last Sunday moving away from Earth. Which means that it zipped relatively close by us three days before. And nobody knew.
Sure, we have much more to be concerned about it, and can anyone be blamed for not being particularly keen about threats unknown, literally raining from above? Not likely. Besides, the asteroid, poetically known now as 2017 001, passed some safe 76,448 miles away from home.
How safe? About one-third of the Earth-moon distance. And no, it was not big enough to wipe us all out. So, why equating it to way more likely to happen life-altering events, such as a nuclear strike, or people dying from lack of medical care? What’s with the alarmist streak?
There’s a link, that’s why. Just this Thursday, – and like the asteroid itself, reported only after the fact, – a U.S. Senate committee operated nothing short of a small miracle: it actually did something. It reversed a presidential proposal for severe cuts in NASA’s budget. Despite being still lower than the agency would’ve had it, it may receive almost $20 billion funding in 2018, pending Congress and the WH final approval.
Many important programs may be preserved, but a notable will not: the Asteroid Redirect Mission, that would land

a robot on an asteroid, to study it and redirect it to a different orbit, will have to wait. Hopefully, only for the next NASA budget, not for a sudden, unholy space visitor.
Not to make you uncomfortable, but picture, for a moment, a civilization-ending rock being spotted at the edge of the solar system, heading on our way. Fair to expect that most of us wouldn’t even want to experience those few months of pure hell before the unavoidable would happen.
Fear however can only go so far waking people up. The real reason the practice of landing on an asteroid and guiding it to another orbit is not even that it’s the most sensible course of action to avert disaster. Those who think of nukes are nuts, or haven’t really thought that one out.
Unlike in the movies, blowing stuff up not always saves the day. In the case of a massive rock, all it’d probably do would multiply the threat, and we’d have instead of that neat CGI-like cataclysmic explosion, a million other, smaller ones, likely enough for ruining Earth for the living.
What a trial and error period, of successfully landing probes on a string of comets, would allow us first, to master an unbelievably complex race-saving maneuver in space. But it’d also boost a spate of technological innovations, needed for the task, and bound to improve our planet.
Collateral effects, if you would, from the sort of enterprise NASA is known for, have led to far beyond smoke detectors and microwave ovens. And even while giving praise to wireless technology or much better pacemakers, we’ll need some serious inventions to cut corners in the fight to reverse climate change, for instance. For that, not even your amazing cellphone can connect the scientific dots that must be linked.
Two quick interjections before going further. We say NASA, knowing well that the European Space Agency has been a pioneer setting up what’s now a global, 24/7 asteroid tracking watch network. And yes, from its dawn, space exploration has had a hidden military agenda.
NASA, though, is still the leader, and even minor changes to its budget, affecting this or that research, influence the way other agencies get funded by their own governments. After all, it’s either we all foot the bill to finance detection of so-called Near Earth Objects, or no one does.
As for weapon research projects, once developed side by side with powerful rockets that landed man on the moon, they’re still around. Except that war, in the contemporary design of defense strategists, is now fought mostly by smaller, smarter, and ground-grabbing technologies.
Take the all but wasted $1 trillion thrown on developing the F-35, a warplane so perfect that may not be suitable to human pilots. Arguably, one that could be replaced by a fleet of cheaper drones, too, capable of doing almost everything it does. By the way, we recommend neither.
In fact, all spending on weapons is essentially a waste, not so much of money, resources, and well, bullets, but above all, of lives, which they’re created to destroy. A million times then a budget to build things that save lives, and one that aims at saving everyone, has our vote.
There are currently over 10 thousand known objects being tracked near Earth, 10% of them more than a mile across, but none of them has a scheduled appointment with us. The unknown others, though, are what’s cause for concern, mainly because there’s little we can do about it.
At between 82 and 256 feet, 2017 001 is not even close to that scale. But there’s something almost sinister about it, which only now is starting to be studied in depth: its faint magnitude suggests that it’s made, or covered by, some non-reflective material. In other words, it’s nearly invisible to direct observation. We don’t yet know whether there are other, bigger objects also non-reflective. Unfortunately, there might be.
It’s all speculation and guess work, or rather fun and computer games. That is, till a mysterious dot shows up on tracking screens, and ignites a frantic run to determine its orbit and size. So far, we’ve been lucky. But luck has almost never anything to do with it. Preparation does.
Not to spoil your Monday, but we’re definitely not prepared. Neither is this budget proposed to NASA even guaranteed to be approved, given the administration’s open war on science. And that’s when informed citizens may want to take charge on the fight to save their own future.
Investments in scientific projects, going from very basic research to what’s beyond most humans’ ability to understand reality, have been declining, as has science education and funding for any technology that does not involve a pocket-sized screen better fit to surf Facebook.
In the meantime, yes, there’s the single-payer healthcare issue, which may finally take center stage on the national debate, and the killing of green activists in Brazil, which most likely will remain ignored. And then there’s that diminutive Korean dictator, desperately for attention.
There’s also the outlook for a perpetuation of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as it only aggravates the hostilities. One’s got to wonder, since the U.S. has already spent some $1.6 trillion, without getting much else back other than Americans in body bags.
Thus, spending a few dozen billion investing in ways that may prevent a civilization-ending event, doesn’t seem so purposeless after all. Besides, the technology that may drive our efforts may be the same needed to be primed for warding off adverse effects of climate change.
Incidentally, on a relatively meek budget, it’s the network of satellite NASA’s been launching since the 1990s that has provided us with a reliable, albeit frightful, measure of the fast pace of global warming. When parents fight to preserve science curricula in schools, and citizens advocate to protect scientific research, they’re doing more to save life on Earth, the planet and its dwellers, than the current U.S. government.
And just like net neutrality, women’s reproductive rights, race justice, income equality, and so many crucial themes of our age, it’s the people’s pressure that may make or break the day. Tomorrow, August sets the alarm for summer’s end. May we suggest making this one the best ever? WC

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One thought on “Curtain Raiser

  1. As my father might have said, had I mentioned the possibility of a huge asteroid hitting Earth: “At least it might knock some sense into you.”

    Can we hope that even the smallest possibility of an asteroid wiping out life on Earth will knock some sense into us all very soon?

    Liked by 1 person

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