Apocalypse Avoided

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Apocalypse Avoided

Property and casualty insurance is all about paying a small price today to defray or offset the cost of an unlikely, but potentially catastrophic, future event. As we know from the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, literally “Earth-shattering events” occur, but only very infrequently. However, when they do occur, they pose an existential threat not just to civilization, but to life itself.

Looking at the “expected value,” the question is, what are we willing to pay for this insurance. Until the 21st century, no solution was available at any price, for preventing a comet or asteroid from striking the Earth and causing unimaginable devastation.

But that’s about to change because of a planetary defense collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (or NNSA). To date, most of the research has been performed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The program involves a three-pronged approach to planetary defense. NASA is responsible for the first prong, detecting asteroids and comets with enough time to mitigate the risk. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory planetary defense team is the technical lead on the second prong, mitigation of the threat. And, teams at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory support the third prong, emergency response should mitigation fail.

At the heart of the current proposal is a 9-meter-tall, 8.8-ton spacecraft dubbed HAMMER, which stands for Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response. HAMMER features a modular design that would enable it to serve as either a kinetic impactor or as a transport vehicle for a nuclear device.

According to Kirsten Howley, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and coauthor of the study recently published in the February 2018 issue of Acta Astronautica, “The chance of an impact appears slim now, but the consequences would be dire. This study aims to help us shorten the response timeline when we do see a clear and present danger, so we can have more options to deflect it. The ultimate goal is to be ready to protect life on Earth.”

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