Man would like to imagine that he has transcended nature, but being subject to the forces of nature is, inescapably, part of the human condition. Every so often we are reminded of this fact when, inevitably, somewhere on Earth a tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, or volcano wreaks havoc on a population with terrible results. We don’t have to look far back into history to find examples. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed 280,000 people, in 2008 the cyclone Nargis killed 136,000 in Burma, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed 316,000, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami killed 16,000.

Image courtesy of NASA, © 1968, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of NASA, © 1968, some rights reserved.

On the 15th of February 2013 the world was confronted with a potential disaster of an altogether different kind: an extra-terrestrial event. That day the asteroid 2012 DA14 passed 27,743 km over Earth’s surface. The asteroid was about 50m in diameter and its passage was the closest recorded passage of any object of its size. For a sense of the asteroid’s proximity to Earth at the time of its passage consider that satellites in geosynchronous orbit with the Earth orbit at approximately 36,000 km from the planet’s surface. Though there was no chance of the asteroid hitting Earth (this time), NASA and other space agencies were watching the asteroid’s passage intently.

That very same day a different meteor exploded 15 to 25 km above south-central Russia with the force of 20 Hiroshima type nuclear bombs. The shockwave caused millions of dollars of damage to buildings and injured thousands of people in the area. The meteor had not been tracked by any agency and its appearance was a complete surprise.

The ‘Chelyabinsk incident’, as the February 15th event over Russia is now known, was a frightening reminder of a similar event that occurred in 1908. Then, during what is now known as the Tunguska event, a meteor or comet exploded over a remote part of Siberia, levelling 2150 km2 of trees with its blast. Had the impact been near a city the results would have been horrifying; akin to a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb.

Unlike terrestrial events (with the exception of a super volcano eruption) the possibility of an extra-terrestrial disaster strikes humanity with the very real chance of global, not just regional, disaster and potential annihilation (think of the dinosaurs). So, what does this mean for IR?

In response to a terrestrial disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake, the international community is generally quick to respond with aid. After the disasters in Indonesia, Burma, Haiti, and Japan the international community rallied to help in any way it could, big or small. These disasters though are local and the aid was responsive not preventative. Nonetheless they inspire some hope that liberal IR theory may hold true and states can act benevolently to help fellow states in times of need.

But if the international community cannot cooperate to fight a global challenge, like climate change, which a majority of scientists have proven is happening, is caused by man, and will be disastrous, then how can we expect states to cooperate to pre-emptively respond to a natural threat that poses an even greater danger to mankind, that is, the strike of a potentially destructive asteroid?

Perhaps the most interesting feature of an asteroid strike is that it confronts us, in the most cosmopolitan of ways, with our shared humanity. First, there is the element of chance. The meteor could strike anywhere. No matter how advanced or powerful the nation, all are equally at peril. And if the asteroid were big enough, all would be at peril, as the earth would be plunged into a global age of darkness and winter as dust particles thrown into the air cloud the sun and skies. Perhaps, like the dinosaurs, we too would become extinct.

Talk of space missiles and asteroid deflection mechanisms are no longer the realm of science fiction; the movie Armageddon no longer seems so far fetched. But, like in all problems that confront the global commons (in this case literally global) who will take responsibility for attempting (if possible) to respond to this threat? America? The EU? Must Bruce Willis and his team of astronauts save the day once again? Or does mankind accept that, like earthquakes and tsunamis, the possibility of an extra-terrestrial natural disaster is just a fact of life that we must live with and therefore it is no one nation-state’s responsibility?

Clearly not. NASA’s ‘Spaceguard’ effort to detect near earth asteroids and comets is one such effort. In the 2005 NASA mandate signed by President Bush, it was stated that:

The general welfare and security of the United States require that the unique competence of NASA be directed to detecting, tracking, cataloguing, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids and comets in order to provide warning and mitigation of the potential hazard of such near-Earth objects to the Earth.”

These efforts though are sadly parochial. Emphasising the safety of the US alone. Space apparently poses a unique hazard to just the US. Apparently the safety of Earth will be a positive externality of the US’s own space monitoring efforts to protect itself.

At the end of the day all this sounds extremely hubristic. In reality the danger of a cataclysmic asteroid is extremely small. Still, it raises some interesting questions that are worth pondering. What would we do? And who should be responsible?