June 24, 2017

Asteroids and Why They Matter

Why should I learn about asteroids?

(Motivation behind Asteroid Analytics)

Space offers humanity the opportunity to really become unlimited.  Obviously we have to take care of our Earth, the solar system, and all the resources that we have...and use them wisely.  BUT there's enough stuff (and the right kind of stuff) out there that we could really, REALLY, REALLY grow.  Humanity doesn't gain anything by shrinking.  We gain by getting smarter and continuing to grow.  That is something we do quite well, and space has the added bonus of not having to take it from anybody.  The greatest asset that we gain from expanding out into the solar system is the opportunity for human ingenuity...the human resource.  It gives us the opportunity for more awesomeness...for art, for culture, for love, for innovation.  This is why I personally believe that learning about asteroids is one of most important things that we can do to ensure that the future is a lot more amazing.

Planetary Defense

Asteroids collide with Earth all the time.  We WILL get hit again if we do nothing. "The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program.  And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!" - Larry Niven


Asteroids are our ticket to the stars.  Once we are able to extract and use resources from asteroids, we will have everything we need to expand our economy and civilization into the solar system.  The engineering problems are relatively straightforward, but will we have the courage to take the next giant leap for humankind?

Our beloved Earth is basically a ball of rock hurtling around a star at about 30 km/s (over 66,000 mph).  That's kind of nauseating to think about, but we're held down by Earth's gravity and don't even notice.  No big deal.  Except that there are millions of other hunks of rock also hurtling around the same star at 30km/s.  This is a recipe for collision.

The following example came from the Apollo astronaut and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, Rusty Schweickart. A full video presentation with updated info can be found here, but below is a summary.

"Pretend you're in the batter's box in a game of baseball.  Suddenly the rules have changed."

  • Head is the strike zone
  • Baseball = rock
  • World Record fastball pitcher
  • One strike you're out (dead)
  • At bat forever

This sounds pretty depressing, doesn't it?  Well, one bit of good news is that we now actually have our eyes open.  We also, for the first time in history, know how to swing the bat.  By that, I mean that we theoretically have the technology today to deflect an asteroid off a collision course...we just haven't tried it yet.

This is what an initiative like Asteroid Day is all about.  We need to know all we can about asteroids before we can hope to prevent one from hitting us.  This knowledge in basic science will allow us to better characterize and track asteroid orbits as well as inform decisions for missions to deflect them off a collision course with Earth.

As we look at preserving our environment of life here on Earth, it is also prudent to begin looking to other areas in our solar system for resources.  Right now our Earth sustains a population of over 7 billion, and with continued advances in technology and sustainability efforts, we can probably push that to 10 or 15 billion in the next hundred years or so.  Every year the demand for various resources like energy, water, land, and food increases.  As competition for these resources continues to rise, prices rises and accessibility diminishes.  The only thing that has proven to overcome these problems has been human ingenuity and generosity.  We develop technology and new ways to use, process, recycle, and distribute the goods and services that we all need and want.

The sheer quantity of resources on the surface of our precious blue orb pales in comparison to the amount of resources available from asteroids.  According Dr. John S. Lewis, the Chief Scientist at Deep Space Industries and author of Asteroid Mining 101, there are enough resources available in asteroids near to earth (near Earth asteroids) that could sustain a human population of 500 billion, with enough resources to sustain another 10,000,000 BILLION humans in the asteroid belt (main belt asteroids).

This is precisely the kind of innovation that would serve as an economic forcing function for an explosion of sustained human presence in the solar system.  With asteroid mining comes the demonstrable technology to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth...essentially eliminating the possibility of an extinction-level impact event.  This will serve as the foundation for thriving communities in free space, the moon, Mars, and beyond.