Forgotten Errands: Let the Sky Fall and the Nukes Launch

In my last article, I referenced the increasingly cliché “asteroid headed towards Earth” scenario with relation to the global imperative to take immediate action in combating the devastating effects of climate change. This brought my thoughts from the atmospheric faction of the global commons to the least understood and bounded res nullius territory: Outer Space.

My thoughts dwelled on the assumption I had presupposed in my previous article. If a giant asteroid really was on a collision course to destroy life as we know it, would the international community actually find a solution to preserve Earth? Or would humanity become a casualty of the often overly bureaucratic and political nature of modern international regimes?

Image courtesy of LarryBloom, © 2003, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of LarryBloom, © 2003, some rights reserved.

I found the answer to be an interesting one. As it currently stands, the consensus on asteroid protection strategy is evocative of Cold War defence strategies: When faced with such a threat, hit it with a nuclear missile.

But successfully hitting the asteroid will not be an easy task, even for those wider than one kilometre in diameter that would hypothetically pose the largest threat to life on Earth. Studies suggest that most asteroids are not solid rock, but an agglomeration of extra-terrestrial rubble with varying physical properties. It is unclear whether the missile would need to explode upon impact with the asteroid, or if an explosion in the general vicinity would yield the desired effects. The consequences of such a reaction are also perilously conditional, and fragmented pieces of a partially destroyed asteroid could pose additional hazardous threats.

In February of this year, after the bewilderment and devastation that followed the meteor explosion over the Ural Mountains, the Russian space agency Roscosmos launched an aggressive campaign to enhance asteroid detection and defence technology to the tune of £11 million pounds in the next five years. Part of the agenda includes closely tracking the 9942 Apophis, an asteroid 325 meters in diameter expected to make its next closest approach to Earth in 2029, and again in 2036.

It was at this point in my research that I began to have a bit of an identity crisis. Why was I not pursuing a degree in physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, or engineering? What purpose could my MA International Relations serve when the final threat to humanity was bound to be a massive composite of accelerating space-junk?!

Bittersweet was the realisation that my studies would hold relevance as long as politics and competing ambitions affect international regimes.  With the use of nuclear weapons at the core of this proposition, the conflict will not be resolved with solely scientific innovation.

Many of the necessary technologies remains as a by-product of arms races of decades past, but to generate new weapons and mobilise these reserves remains as contentious as ever, as we have seen recently with increased sanctions against Iran and North Korea. And, unilaterally blasting an asteroid with a nuclear missile would technically violate the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treat and would need to be addressed by both the United Nation Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Security Council.

The latter issue should prove less consequential, as initiatives should be cleared by the United Nations as necessary for global defence and wellbeing. However, within the Security Council, another issue would undoubtedly arise.

Who will get to nuke the asteroid? Who would get the glory of saving life on Earth? And who would get the international spotlight to emphasize national power in its most aggressive form?

The five permanent members of the Security Council also hold the greatest number of stockpiled nuclear weapons, with Russia in the lead followed closely by the United States, then France, China, and finally the United Kingdom.

While Russia appears to be taking the most proactive stance on asteroid defence as of late, it is not realistic to assume that Washington would so easily concede the glory to Moscow, even as NASA faces over $900 million in budget cuts under Federal sequestration plans. Tensions surrounding nuclear technologies also seem to be momentarily rising regarding the 14 new interceptors the United States has positioned in California and Alaska following the developments in Iran and North Korea.

And it would be unwise to discount China. With the exponential pace of development and increasing involvement in international politics, perhaps Chinese ambition will sharply contend with that of the US and Russia in the coming years and decades.

While France and the United Kingdom are not obvious contenders for the nomination, action from either might yield a more neutral outcome and avoid the escalating tensions and competition between the US, Russia, and China. And the glory of nuclear asteroid deterrence might just help in the fusion of European identity, emphasising European progress and peaceful cooperation as the 2012 Novel Peace Prize sought to recognise.

The most preeminent asteroid-related threat in the near future seems to be regarding 9942 Apophis, so we still have several decades for power structures to shift and states to exert their dominance in asteroid related-matters.

Only time will tell.

Which leads to yet another bittersweet conclusion. With the odds of 9942 Apophis colliding with Earth estimated to be less than 1 in 140,000,000, we will likely never need to decimate an asteroid with a nuclear missile.

Good for humanity. Bad for personal curiosity and a career in science fiction related international relations.

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