by Luisa Low
With a career in social justice movements and “fabulous innovation”, Danica serves as President of the B612 Foundation, which leads private sector efforts in research, analysis and systems design to protect Earth from asteroids. Danica also co-founded the international program, Asteroid Day, which takes place each year on 30 June. The initiative is supported by a raft of rockstars (and rockstar scientists!), as well as governments, international space agencies and satellite companies. In 2016, it was sanctioned by the United Nations as an official day to increase global awareness and education of asteroids.
Asteroids are all around us, but have people forgotten the threat they pose to Earth since Armageddon hit our screens over 23 years ago? Or is an asteroid impact the existential crisis always lurking in the back of our minds? This week, Danica and Torsten discuss what measures the “new space revolution” is implementing to save our planet from a Hollywood doomsday scenario and how Asteroid Day is raising awareness of this issue.
How the entertainment industry got behind asteroid impact prevention
What happens when you get Danica Remy, Martin Rees, Peter Gabriel and rockstar-cum-astrophysicist Brian May in a room together?
They embark on a quest to protect Earth from being blown to smithereens by asteroids, that’s what. It was almost exactly seven years ago when Danica Remy and her team of advocates seriously got into the asteroid impact prevention business. On 15. February 2013 an asteroid hit Russian town Chelyabinsk, damaging buildings, smashing thousands of windows and sending 1,500 people to the hospital. Thankfully, no one was killed, but the event served as a wake-up call to the sector.
Although some consider asteroid impact inevitable – an event that’s largely outside humankind’s control – Danica is a self-confessed techno-optimist, which mean she’s squarely in the camp that asteroid impact is prevented through technology and the coming together of multiple sectors. She has also brought her skills in advocacy to gain momentum for the movement, by convincing well-known people – scientists, government leaders and celebrities – to get behind the cause.
“When we launched, we were finding, around the world, about 1,000 new asteroids a year. We wanted to accelerate that to 100,000 a year.”
“We’re finding about 2,000 near-Earth asteroids a year. The 100,000 was that call to action that says, ‘Come on humanity, let’s get our act together. Let’s find some more asteroids!’”
The process behind the “razzle-dazzle”
Behind the celebrity heads, Danica’s work involves lobbying governments and coordinating institutions and the best minds to find, track and study asteroids. This includes working with asteroid data submitted to the Minor Planet Centre by amateur astronomers to accelerate the rate of discovery. Her organisation also helps to support and augment the work of space projects, increasing advocacy for initiatives like double asteroid redirect systems.
“Encouraging governments and companies to invest in space technology is something really important that everybody can do.”
Will deflection missions take inspiration from Bruce Willis?
Danica says there are already several generally accepted ways in which humanity can deflect an asteroid, however doing it successfully would rely on governments around the world working together cooperatively. There is already two work process drafted by the United Nations to manage in the event of an imminent asteroid impact, the International Asteroid Warning Network and the Space Mission Planning Group, which would work through the logistics of a deflection mission.
However, in terms of asteroid impact prevention techniques, there are three technologies being developed. The most well-known approach is the kinetic impactor. This would involve smashing a small spacecraft into an asteroid so it takes a different course, a technique already being trialled by the Double Asteroid Redirect Mission.
The second is a gravity tractor – which would involve flying a small spacecraft next to an asteroid. The gravity between the two objects would be used – much like a tugboat – to shift the asteroid away from earth.
The third technique, which Danica says is the one that Bruce Willis tried to implement in Armageddon but got wrong, would involve putting a nuclear device on the top of a rocket. However, instead of exploding the asteroid, the nuclear device would explode nearby. The idea of this technique is that energy emanating from the explosion would move the asteroid into another orbit.
However, until any of those approaches are trialled or are properly, the main focus for governments and space agencies is to see if any asteroids actually pose a near threat to Earth.
So, for now, the closest we’ll probably get to such a scenario is on the silver screen.
To listen to Danica Remy’s insights into the space industry and her experience as co-founder of Asteroid Day, you can watch the full program here:
Luisa Low is a freelance journalist and media adviser from Sydney, Australia. She currently manages Media and Public Relations for the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering.