How to save the world

November 21, 2013 3:32 pm

We’re all used to Hollywood’s wildly varying predictions of the nature of fire and brimstone apocalypse may rain down on humanity. Of these, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s 1998 blockbuster Armageddon starring Bruce Willis is perhaps the most instantly recognisable.

The plotline, for the uninitiated, revolves around a team of deep-sea oil drillers led by Willis’s archetypal hard-man Harry Stamper in their efforts to deflect an Earth-threatening asteroid, by using that most favourite of Hollywood director’s solutions to solving the crisis – a massive bomb.

Not only are they trained to fly two top-secret space shuttles in a matter of days; they proceed to accidentally blow up a Russian space station (manned by Peter Stormare’s staggeringly stereotyped cosmonaut), execute an excruciating gravity-assisted burn around the back side of the Moon and crash-land on the offending asteroid.

We won’t even go into the standard Hollywood fare whereby the protagonists are killed off one-by-one. Or that Willis’s life ends heroically as he detonates the nuclear warhead and saves the world with seconds to spare (principally because he spent so long saying ‘goodbye’ to his daughter – get on with it man).

Don't worry Bruce - next time we won't need to send you.

Don’t worry Bruce – next time we won’t need to send you.

After fifteen years of ridicule for the blockbuster, a recent study by the journal Nature has led to news agencies reporting the threat from naturally-occurring space debris has ‘increased’. Something of a misconception – the threat level itself has not changed, we merely now have the technological capability to uncover such missiles and scare ourselves witless with endless fretting over our apparently-imminent demise.

While February’s Chelyabinsk meteorite propelled the issue of NEO’s (Near Earth Objects) back into the public spotlight, I was preparing to meet later in the year with Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart. A veteran of NASA’s bold Apollo program, ‘Rusty’ spent ten days in Earth orbit in March 1969 with crewmates Jim McDivitt and David Scott, putting the first Apollo Lunar Module through its paces. While their achievements and qualifications are every bit as impressive as their predecessors, today’s space farers just don’t have the allure of an Apollo astronaut. After all, here was a man who trained as part of a program that successfully landed twelve human beings on the Moon.

Imagine my surprise then, when in September of this year I finally get to shake hands with Schweickart. I’ve only just begun talking when Rusty deflects questions about his Apollo 9 experience. It seems strange behaviour for someone whose crowning achievement was reaching space.

The explanation for his unexpected and, to me, irrational deviation from discussing his career becomes apparent when Rusty gives a lecture later that afternoon. I’ve spent the last hour listening to Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan relive his final moments on the moon (mankind’s final steps too as it currently stands – nobody ever followed Cernan’s 1972 mission). Rusty is sat against the wall waiting for his turn to take to the stage – squatting is no mean feat for a 78 year-old – but what surprises me most is the fact he is brandishing an iPad. He seems quite familiar with it as he connects the 128GB device to the enormous LCD screen in front of us; for some reason it surprises me as I have always imagined him wrestling with the 15-bit memory of his Apollo spacecraft.

A legendary rock guitarist, a 78 year-old former astronaut and a great big telescope - all you need to save the world.

A legendary rock guitarist, a 78 year-old former astronaut and a great big telescope – all you need to defend the Earth.

Schweickart, it turns out, is a leading light of the B612 Foundation – a little-known group of former astronauts, astronomers and astro-physicists (Dr Brian May, of Queen fame, numbers among their ranks) working to protect the Earth from asteroid and meteorite strikes . Their brainchild is the Sentinel Program, a space telescope specifically designed for mapping natural space debris. From the data Sentinel could gather, experts back on Earth can quickly discover which of these hulking monoliths poses a serious threat to our existence.

‘What use is a telescope?’ I hear you cry. Sentinel is merely one part of B612’s proposed arsenal for dealing with incoming intruders. Rather than blow up, deflect or change the course of the asteroid, B612 proposes to simply smash a spacecraft into the rock.

If a spacecraft can be used as a cosmic battering ram and crashed into the front of the oncoming behemoth, it will slow the speed of the meteorite or asteroid enough for it to miss Earth by hundreds of thousands of miles, potentially more. It’s a difficult concept to grasp but, when dealing with the colossal distances involved in space, you begin to realise that slowing the meteorite by just half a mile an hour on day X means that by predicted Armageddon date Y, it is in fact nowhere near the vicinity of the Earth. Don’t worry Bruce Willis fans; your hero isn’t completely redundant. One of B612’s secondary alternatives involves detonating a nuclear device in front of the asteroid to reduce its velocity.

“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures. Mapping the presence of 1000′s of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.” Dr. Scott Hubbard B612 Foundation Program Architect

“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures. Mapping the presence of 1000′s of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.”
Dr. Scott Hubbard
B612 Foundation Program Architect

While estimates predict there is anything upwards of ten million asteroids within the asteroid belt alone, the threat of a humanity extinction event is not as prolific as you might think. It would however be certain-suicide to ignore the financial, cultural and social implications of repeated strikes on the scale of the Chelyabinsk cataclysm. Governments and private agencies can’t afford to spend billions each and every time an encroaching asteroid chooses to damage and destroy large swathes of property and people. Asteroid strikes present a nightmare for legislators – after all, who is liable for meteorite damage to property?

The B612 foundation is targeting 2018 as the launch window for Sentinel, an ambitious goal already in danger from funding shortfalls. Financed entirely by donations from safety-conscious earthlings the world over (and a handful of fore-thinking millionaires), its future deployment relies very much on NEO’s becoming a serious topic of discussion and awareness.

As for Rusty Schweickart, I’m glad he’s found a new project to fill his time. It would be easy for him to sit back and rest on his Apollo 9 laurels, basking in the attention of space-nuts.

That he fails to do so illustrates more than anything the urgency of the scheme he advocates. When NEO’s come knocking, there are no second chances.

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