Asteroids: Why Are They an American Problem?


Foreign Policy mag notes the mid-October deadline for the U.S. to decide what U.S. agency will get the joyous task of preventing planetary destruction via asteroid strike in its portfolio. But they ask: why must planet-saving always come down to us, Bruce Willis being a citizen notwithstanding?

But why, in this supposedly post-American world, is the United States expected to take the lead on this? Unlike, say, missile defense, asteroid detection and deterrence benefits all countries—if NASA does detect a potentially dangerous asteroid, chances are it's probably going to hit somewhere else. And unlike global warming, smaller developing countries can't say that the United States should accept more of the blame for asteroids. (Though Hugo Chavez could certainly try.)

Scientists have been urging the United Nations to coordinate international asteroid detection efforts for years. But despite coordinating work by the the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs(yes, there is one), progress seems to be slow-going. 

There are some promising signs of other powers starting to take the lead. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference on international asteroid tracing earlier this year. Russia's space agency has also proposed a joint asteroid monitoring project with the European Union.

Will this sci-fi threat be the entering wedge for a tyrannical one-world government? Prognosis: doubtful. Ron Bailey wrote in tenuous defense of international governance to smash the asteroid threat for Reason back in 2005.

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  1. I can’t say I agree here.

    Any weapons system or space transport system that could possibly divert or destroy an asteroid would also have geopolitical applications. I’m perfectly happy not doing a technology share with Hugo Chavez, even if that means he doesn’t have to contribute any $.

    1. The flip-side to this is that the governments of a lot of countries will go bat-shit insane if we “unilaterally” launch a weapons system that can destroy asteroids.

      The NOAA (I believe) was once working on a way to “seed” tropical storms with silver iodide to get them to precipitate more heavily before they struck land. The idea being that it might be possible to cut down the strength of storms before they reach land. Cuba, but more importantly Mexico, bitched like crazy about this, saying that the evul gringos were trying to send hurricanes their way. The program was stopped.

      Personally, I’m all for telling other countries with a problem to go fuck themselves, but depending on the geo-political “needs” of the moment, the wrong country whining could be enough to stop the anti-asteroid initiative.

      1. The flip-side to this is that the governments of a lot of countries will go bat-shit insane

        (1) Umm, too late?

        (2) Who cares?

        1. “”(2) Who cares?”””

          Apparently we do since we spend a nice penny to defend ourselves from bat-shit insane governments.

      2. Fuck ’em. One reason to maintain American preeminence in spaceflight–even if we’re lucky enough to privatize launch capabilities–is that control in space will mean wealth and technological supremacy on Earth.

        The United Planets of America.

        1. You are the precursor to the Alliance. I knew you were evil.

          1. I’m perfectly happy not doing a technology share with Hugo Chavez, even if that means he doesn’t have to contribute any $.

            What if we launched Hugo Chavez and Sean Penn into the asteroid? Mass is mass.

          2. No alliance. Just the United States writ large.

    2. It desn’t have to be a weapons system, per se. It can be something as “low-tech” as a big-ass ion engine that jams into it, altering it’s course, or pop a couple nukes nearby for the same effect.

      In either case, at best we get a delivery platform.

      1. I’d just use one of them there big-ass super soakers.

        1. “In space, no one can win a wet t-shirt contest.”


      2. It can be something as “low-tech” as a big-ass ion engine that jams into it, altering it’s course, or pop a couple nukes nearby for the same effect.

        I think you’re a little unclear on the concept of “weapons system”>

        1. But the topic was creating a new weapon system. We already have nukes, and we already have the ability to place them in space. Maybe actually DOING it would produce some additional international stability, but the possibility is already in place.

          So, I think you’re both a little unclear.

          1. No, a “weapons system” in the conventional sense wouldn’t be useful here as blowing it up would only spread the damage out, not alter its course, which is what you want.

            Now, a big-ass laser that could impart a new vector onto the asteroid, THAT would indeed be a bad-ass weapons system that other nations would rightly fear.

            “BWAHAHAHA! Who’s got the Death Ray now? Hmmm?”

          2. OTOH, a diverted asteroid could be a hell of a weapons system, so long as you’ve got your orbital mechanics sufficiently fine-tuned.

            A 500 meter + asteroid is a danger to everyone, but a nice little Tunguska-sized event could flatten an enemy without warning. Just send out an “innocent little interplanetary probe” that gets “lost” and “out of communication”, and a couple of years later, POW! – a nice little 100 megaton bolt from the blue.

            (Not that we polite people from the Great White North would do anything like that.)

            1. Do you have a space program? You’ve got that robotic arm.

              1. *scoff scoff*

                Of course not! Why would Canadians have a space program when we can get the US to launch our giudance engines peaceful deep-space probes for us?

                1. I knew all that politeness was merely a clever ruse.

            2. The thing is, you don’t need an asteroid for that. All you need is enough mass and you have a nuclear bomb in the form of a kinetic energy weapon.

              Project Thor. “Tonight’s Armageddon is brought to you by Jerry Pournelle.”

              1. Even a very very small nuke give you about 0.3 kilotons, or 1.3 terajoules, or roughly what you’d get from a 230 ton kinetic weapon coming in from Low Earth Orbit. The big Project Thor impactors would have been more like 8 tons. It’s not the energy content that makes them impressive, it’s the energy delivery: all to the single point of impact, with massive momentum, rather than dispersed into a spherical blast wave. The difficulty of defense is significant, too; aircraft carriers can shoot down missiles and indirectly outrange shells, but they’d be sitting ducks against kinetic rods.

                A 100m asteroid, for comparison, is likely to release more like 50 Megatons of energy at impact; that’s the size of the largest nuclear explosions ever tested.

                1. Surgical strike vs. saturation bombing.

                  The nice thing about Thor projectiles is that you just fly more up to orbit. Asteroids require wrangling, which will require *lots* of time and fuel.

                2. The larger of two asteroids that had “near misses” with earth almost two weeks ago was only 20m long. How big a nuke would we need to equal the damage of that asteroid’s impact?

        2. No, nukes we got already that wouldn’t require any development. Now, a delivery platform that would get them beyond low Earth orbit could come in handy.

      3. Depending on how much advance notice you have, that big-ass ion engine may not even have to land – it can actually hover over the asteroid and use its own gravitational attraction to change the asteroid’s course a little each year.

        Unfortunately, anything that can change asteroid courses is inherently a weapon system. If you have the capacity to deflect an asteroid that would have impacted Earth so that it just passes near Earth instead, then you have the capacity to deflect an asteroid that would have passed near Earth so that it impacts Earth instead. And the latter asteroids are more common.

        This makes it possible that an asteroid deflection system is actually more dangerous than not – natural seriously destructive-sized Earth-impacting asteroids come millenia apart, extinction-sized impactors come eons apart, but psycho political leaders who might misuse a weapon system come along more than once a century. On the other hand, the psycho leaders who could get their hands on asteroid deflectors would probably also have their hands on nukes, so maybe giving them a less destructive, much less rapid alternative poses no real additional risk.

        1. Good thoughts. The ability to deflect an asteroid towards/awayfrom earth would become another arms race. As long as your asteroid detection and deflection (AD&D, heh) system is better than the next guy’s, you got nothin to worry about.

          I have to agree that nukes afford a much greater destructive capability. Getting enough of the right size/composition asteroids lined up to hit your enemy in a relatively short span of time would be a tall order, no much how money you threw at it.

          1. Hopefully, the Earth will make its saving throw.

  2. But why, in this supposedly post-American world, is the United States expected to take the lead on this?

    Russia’s space agency has also proposed a joint asteroid monitoring project with the European Union.

    Do you really want the Russians to beat us in another space race? With the help of the French, no less. Disgraceful.

    1. With the help of the French, no less.

      “Appease the asteroid Jean Pierre, Appease it!”

  3. We inherited these asteroids from Chimpy McBushitler. That’s why.

  4. The threat of billion year old interstellar debris is a clear justification for invading Iran…

  5. This is just one more atrocity that can be placed squarely at the feet of Michael Bay. If only Jerry Bruckheimer had killed him when he had the chance.


  6. “Scientists have been urging the United Nations to coordinate international asteroid detection efforts for years”


    1. As smart as they are, scientists still don’t understand how to make gov’t work for them.

      1. In fairness, they probably tried to use logic, reason, and facts; never knowing that these are anathema to UNocrats.

  7. Somewhat related.

  8. And unlike global warming, smaller developing countries can’t say that the United States should accept more of the blame for asteroids.

    Of course they can. Watch:
    -The US is richer and more powerful than smaller, developing countries,
    -The US got that way by exploiting these countries,
    -Therefore, it is the duty of the US to make repayments by taking on a the lion’s share of the duties and expenses.

    Q.E.D. Kind of like how it works with everything else the US is “responsible” for, you know?

  9. un won’t get involved unless:
    a) There are innocents to rape on the asteroids
    b) There is money that can be extorted from the asteroids to line the pockets of the un-leaders
    c) There are great vacation spots on the asteroids for the un-leaders and other no-goers to hold getaways at

    1. There is money that can be extorted from the asteroids to line the pockets of the un-leaders

      “Some awful nice craters and ice you got there, be a shame if anything were to happen them.”

    2. There is money (almost literally, in the form of platinum group metals) that can be acquired from asteroids. But going and getting it themselves would be work, so UN leaders declared that potential property in outer space would be “not subject to national appropriation”, code for “whatever you work to produce, we get some too”. For some strange reason it turns out that this trick isn’t working.

      1. No crap. A “small” asteroid could hold $5 Trillion in metals. Of course, metal would be worth a whole lot less if we added that to the supply.

        1. Hmmm – Short gold ahead of December 2012?

    3. And they can use diplomatic immunity to get away with not paying their parking tickets.

  10. I say we piss everyone else off by announcing a plan to build a retractable asteroid-proof dome over the continental US. Everyone else is on their own.

    1. The dome might be able to protect against a direct strike (well, not really, but lets go with it for a minute), but how’s the dome going to help with the resulting floods, earthquakes and global cooling?

      1. (I wish it would work though, I love the strategy as a whole.)

      2. We make it watertight, insulated, and have huge earthquake straps holding it in place.

        1. The earthquake straps help deflect the blast too, win/win!

      3. It’s also a greenhouse dome.

      4. No, this is more like Reagan’s version of SDI than actual space defense.

        1. I’m pretty sure we can learn from Cleveland here and make sure it has a retractable roof.

  11. But they ask: why must planet-saving always come down to us

    Cuz if it isn’t us then the UN will use it as an excuse to govern us.

  12. But despite coordinating work by the the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs(yes, there is one), progress seems to be slow-going.

    Shocked. Shocked, I say.

  13. I suggest telling Congress that asteroids contain. . .steroids. We’d have the solar system under control shortly thereafter. Why, they might even let the private sector lead the way, to avoid the great horror of space ‘steroids landing on Earth and contaminating our athletic events.

    1. “My god! It”s made of solid clemenstite!”

    2. You’d have Waxman storming out of his office to get a spacesuit.

      1. The applications are endless.

  14. We need to control this sort of technology so that if an asteroid is coming at or near the US, we can redirect it to somewhere unimportant… Indian Ocean maybe?

      1. We’re just simple country with a small industrious population and massive mineral and water resources… nothing to see here, move along

  15. Man is a virus. Bring on the destruction!

  16. It is kinda creepy.

    In a whole lot of books and movies they try to shift the ‘world saving’. In Dr.Who, it is the quasi-British Doctor who saves the world that’s always getting attacked at London, for some reason. In Ender’s Game the US winds up as kinda quaint. The aliens going to South Africa in District 9.

    But when it really comes down to it, everyone turns to the guy sitting under the stars and stripes.

    They bitch, they moan, they hate us.

    And they know we can save them.


    1. It’s like being the Batman.

  17. As acting President of the World Council I am pleased to announce to you that the two year study we commissioned on what should be done about the Eminent Threat as it is commonly, but pejoratively, called by the human parasite classes. It is not a threat to the Earth. Our studies have found that Gaea, herself, had long ago reached out to this asteroid to destroy the human parasite in an act of cosmic mercy. It will scar her for some time, yet it also offers her a new hope. We advise no more monies be spent on barbaric technologies to thwart her wishes; instead, those monies would be better spent on the underground city that is currently being built to accommodate only the best, the brightest, the most carbon negative and environmentally sensitive, the City of Gore. Accept your faith, scum.

  18. It is because we have the best nuclear weapons. Aside from inflicting great justice these weapons are excellent for planetary defense.

  19. We need to bring this discussion down to earth (Ha!).

    A life-altering asteroid is on a possible trajectory to hit the earth. Do you really want the U.N. behind the solution?

    1. Fair enough, but I also don’t want Steve Jobs in charge of it either. The mission would fail due to the misplacing of a minidisplayport adapter or something.

      I vote for the Mythbusters team to defend Earth against the Asteroid Menace.

      1. You vote for the guys who like huge explosions and destroying stuff?

        1. Well then we might as well have the U.N. do it.

        2. I WAS pushing for the “my candidates would end up destroying the planet” angle, but really, I think they’d want to prevent the end of life on earth. So, in the end, we still get a huge explosion AND the continuation of lifeasweknowit. Win/Win.

  20. Armageddon was awesome cinema.

    That is all.

    1. I think you have a typo. Did you mean to say, “Armageddon was awesome enema?”

      1. I think he meant to say that he saw Armageddon in the theater next to the awesome Cinnabon.

        1. No, he meant an Armadillo could be an awesome Chimera.

          1. I checked the anagram generator, and I have a few possible solutions:

            Came In
            Man Ice

            1. You goddam haters. The shuttles were named Freedom and Independence. Do I have to draw you a picture of me spelling out a map of it for you? It’s America saving the world, all thanks to technological knowhow gained by the harvesting of fossil fuels and the weaponization of space. It’s the public sector working with the private sector to get that rock blowed up. For all of humanity.

              Also, the president’s speech in that movie was 10x better than anything your precious Obama McLegthriller’s speechwriters could come up with.

              1. Except for the part where it was a stupid fucking movie, I agree with you.

                1. Frankly, I’m just not sure we’re all talking about the same movie.

                  1. Let’s poll the commentariat.

                    1. It burns like next shit after hot wings, because:

                      1) Ben Aflac
                      2) Owen Wilson
                      3) Owen Wilson
                      4) BAYHEM

                      Not even the mere presence of Buscemi could save this oozing cold sore of a movie.

                    2. Okay, that’s one against, I think.

  21. I’m imagining a scenario… A huge extinction sized asteroid is headed for earth, the USA sends Bruce Willis or maybe Chuck Norris (or whomever) to destroy/divert aforementioned menace. The menace is dispatched successfully, except for a building sized chunk that lands somewhere (besides north america of course) You know they’ll say you did that on purpose… ’cause you know when you win you lose in modern geopolitics I say the un should put together a team, maybe kim jong il and chavez and ahmed, ahmedbine, that crazy fuck from iran(sic)they’ll save us won’t they

  22. I recommend Lucifer’s Hammer as a good reference book. The only unrealistic part is that a Senator from California possesses both a brain and a spine.

    1. 2nd. Great book.

  23. Is it our job to defend the world?

    1. A man’s house is his castle?

    2. No.

      What we should do IMHO is to build the system, and use it to divert any asteroids that will cause a negative effect to the United States. Once this system is in place, we should then announce to the world that we will be charging a fee to redirect any asteroid that would NOT affect the United States.

      If they don’t like it, build your own damn system or go pound sand.

      Turn it into a business.

    3. With great power comes great responsibility.

      Also, women.

    4. Given that an asteroid that we would be able to detect in time to deflect would also be large enough wreck the US even if lands on the other side of the world, yes. Defending the world from that kind of threat would be defending ourselves from it. of course, at the moment it is moot as we do not have the practical capability to do such a thing.

  24. I always thought asteroids were caused by straining too hard on the toilet. Is that just an old wive’s tale? I had no idea only Americans got them.

  25. First of all, NASA is the only agency remotely capable of organizing the sky surveys that track NEO’s world wide. The big problem with scanning the skies right now is that we have a huge blind spot in our southern hemsiphere, specifically because we simply don’t have that many observational facilities in that part of the world.

    Secondly, all that matters when it comes to asteroid mitigation is how soon you find it before eventual impact. If we found even a Tunguska sized object scheduled to hit New York in the next year, we wouldn’t be able to do jack about it. We simply don’t have the technology.

    Keep this in mind-asteroids are travelling at around 10,000 KM/hour. The amount of momentum and force contained in these things is enormous, and currently we don’t have any “weapons system” remotely powerful enough to stop something that would hit in say the next three years.

    Folks like the B612 Foundation ( are trying to start work on a tracking system for the Asteroid Apophis so we can begin to figure out what we would need to do in the even of a serious risk.

    The bottom line is that NASA is the only agency that is even remotely capable of developing a serious mitigation design, and whether the world likes it or not, it pretty much remains up to us to deal with this.

  26. Because putting anything into the hands of the UN is as insane as putting a class of second-graders in charge, and because it could hurt the US if it happened. That’s why it’s a US responsibility.

    What we should do, however, is zero US funding and participation in the UN, and force it to move out of New York. The old League of nations offices in Switzerland should be fine.

    1. Why would the Swiss want to import a ready-made criminal class, complete with diplomatic immunity?

    2. The League of Nations Under the American Asteroid Defense Umbrella.

      Just $50 billion a year to be a member!

  27. If the USA had the practical capability to prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth, would not we be stupid not to use it?

    It would be nice if other nations were helping, I suppose.

  28. I say do nothing. Why fuck with chaos.


  30. Rusty Schweickart,

  31. Look forget the notion of diverting an asteroid right now we’re simply at the phase of identifying the threat. And the technology to do that is not something enclusive to the US, any organization can setup automated sky surveys and collect the data.

    But the US should take lead simply because it’s an issue of national security, if a ‘hostile’ faction were to discover an object with a predicted future impact then they can keep this information secret while investing in their own interests. Information is power, and it’s in the US’s interest to know if there’s going to be any sort of cataclysmic event.

    Furthermore, Tunguska sized events look a lot like nuclear detonations, it’s entirely possible for an unexpected event at an inopportune time and location to generate a nuclear response. Again, knowing this ahead of time is simply a matter of good defense.

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