NASA, asteroids, and the Planetary Defence that gives the US strategic edge in space race
By Ajey Lele
It is estimated that the Earth’s Solar System formation took place around 4.5 billion years ago. Life on the Earth is known to have changed 66 million years ago, when an asteroid called Chicxulub had hit the Earth, around 66 million years ago. The impact was known to be so huge that nearly three fourth of the Earth had lost all flora and fauna, vegetation and living organisms including the entire species of dinosaurs. In order to ensure that such an asteroid strike should not happen again, the US space agency NASA has recently conducted a space mission to check the possibility of changing the course of an asteroid.
NASA had employed a Kinetic Impact Method to shorten the orbital path of an asteroid called Dimorphos, which is around 6.5 million miles away from the Earth. During November 2021, a 570 kg weighing spacecraft called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was launched to travel towards a Dimorphos. On Sept 26, 2022 it successfully slammed into Dimorphos, in an attempt to alter the course of this space rock. The orbit of this asteroid is around 12 hours and NASA expects that the DART ‘suicide mission’ would be able to shorten the orbital path by 10 minutes. In fact, NASA is of the opinion that even if the orbital path gets shortened by 73 seconds, still this mission could be viewed as a success. It would take some amount of time and collection of significant amounts of data to know the actual result. For this purpose, DART around 15 days back has released a CubeSat, which is presently in the vicinity of the asteroid and collecting observations. Also, there are some Earth based telescopes, which are scanning this region, to understand more about the orbit of the Dimorphos. In addition, the Hubble telescope and JamesWebb Space telescope are expected to provide useful inputs.
During 2016, NASA has established a Planetary Defence Coordination Office (PDCO), with an aim to catalogue the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs). At present, there are around 27, 500 NEAs. Out of these, around 2000 objects, which are large and close to Earth and could be viewed as potentially hazardous. As per various scientific calculations, it is unlikely that in the coming 100 years any major ‘asteroid attack’ on Earth would happen. It has been predicted that on April 13, 2029 an asteroid would harmlessly pass close to Earth (some 35, 000 km away).
NASA feels that this is a mission of unity with a real benefit for all humanity. They view the idea of Planetary Defence as a globally unifying effort that affects everyone living on Earth. Definitely, NASA needs to be congratulated for working towards the safety of the future generations. Actually, this an opportune time to expand on the idea of Planetary Defence. Altering the orbit of an asteroid is a very challenging proposal. With the DART mission, NASA has made a beginning and it could take some more decades of effort to master this art. Hence, it is expected that when such need arises, possibly during the next century, humanity would be prepared to address such a threat.
Now, the issue is, ‘is the entire asteroid research undertaken by the United States (US) only for the sake of security, the future of humanity, or are there some business interests associated with it’?
During 2015, President Barack Obama signed a law called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which is also called the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015. This law permits the US citizens and industries to engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources, including water and minerals. Essentially, such law permits the US citizens to legally own resources mined in space and earn profit.However, this unilateral move by the US administration is against the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty (OST). As per this treaty, which has been signed by the US also, outer space should be kept free for exploration and use by all States and it cannot be a subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
‘16 Psyche’, is a large asteroid discovered by the Italian astronomer on 17 March 1852. Interestingly, NASA’s Hubble Telescope observations indicate that this asteroid could be having a rare piece of heavy metal. This asteroid is estimated to be worth $10,000 quadrillion. The world economy, comprising 194 economies, in 2021 is projected around US$93.86 trillion by the IMF. Broadly, it has been estimated that a quadrillion dollars—is just about 1300 times more than the world’s GDP. During 2014, a mission to Psyche, which is about 230 million miles from Earth was proposed to NASA. As per the available information, during 2020, NASA has awarded SpaceX a US$117 million contract to launch the Psyche spacecraft, which may happen around 2024 and would take six years to reach the asteroid.
So, when the US is investing in Planetary Defence for ensuring the safety of humanity in the future, it is also safeguarding the technological and financial supremacy of the US for the next century by keeping legality of space assets at the peril.
(Author is a Consultant with MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)