If there was one program that every single human being alive would benefit from, it is the identification and control of N.E.O.s — Near Earth Objects — which is to say some wandering asteroid or comet core that sets its sights on this nice planet we live on. The thing is that if one turned up in our telescopes now, say one the size of the Chicxulub one that did the dinosaurs in, there’s nothing much we could do about it beyond waving “bye bye.”
This is not to say that we can do nothing at all. Au contraire. It’s just that we have no capacity to do anything about it right now. In the future, assuming we started preparing for action now, we could do a hell of a lot — starting, say, with a systematic scan of N.E.O.s to identify which are threats (this has already begun, and in fact has routinely picked out the ones that come closest to Earth — although, annoyingly, it hasn’t identified most of them until they have already passed us by. This is not a situation that is useful to us). But if we achieved earlier identification, why then, we could even design and build a fleet of space tugs to change the orbits of threatening N.E.O.s from collision to miss.
These are not trivial chores. Put them together just that far and you’ve already run up a total bill that probably exceeds the tab for the total present world space program, by how much I don’t know.
But that’s only the beginning. If we successfully carried out such a program, it might save us from an abrupt extinction. But here we’re only talking about something that would wipe out a majority of life on the planet itself. What about something smaller, say a Tunguska collision that would wipe out a single city? The actual Tunguska Event (on June 30, 1908) didn’t wipe out a city. It didn’t wipe out anything but a few thousand acres of uninhabited Siberian forest, because that’s where it chanced to land.
It didn’t have to be that harmless . Since the location of such an impact point is essentially random, it could just as easily have landed on Times Square, which would have meant the instant annihilation of the entire city of New York.
Does that make you think of anything, well, scary? Because it does me. And I’m fairly sure that there are a lot of people in this world who would consider it greatly interesting, to use your space tug, in a different manner.
One way you could make an N.E.O. miss a city and instead fall into the sea (which raises its own problems of tsunamis and so on, but never mind that for now) is to fly up to it in your space tug and push it into a slightly different orbit.
Well, not exactly no problem at all. There are certain quite problematical theoretical possibilities.
Suppose the pilot of your space tug was, well, Iranian. And suppose he was an enthusiastic believer in the rightness of his president’s views on Israel, and why wouldn’t it be just as easy to dump that N.E.O. right on top of, say, Tel Aviv?
Re-orbiting N.E.O.s, as we have described, might someday save us all from extinction. But another way to look at it is that it could become the deadliest weapon that this endlessly inventive species of ours has ever devised.
Still, we don’t really have to worry about that as a real possibility, do we?
I mean, the world’s astronauts and cosmonauts are all sane, calm human beings who would never allow themselves to be distracted from their duties by any other consideration. Trust me on this. The people in the International Space Station are not harmed in their duties by extraneous forces.
Still, if you’ve been troubled by these stories of discord on the space station that have been coming to us now and then, calm yourself. Yes, the Russians once stopped the Americans from using their toilets. The Americans then retaliated by ejecting Russians from the American gym. And measures involving food, water and even air were then threatened.
But all is well. Relax. Have a good night’s sleep.