The Ethics of Meteor and Asteroid Defense

The meteor which caused extensive damage and numerous injuries in Chelyabinsk, Russia, yesterday is an unpleasant wake up call for those of us here on Earth. We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. Not only did a 150 foot wide chunk of rock (named 2012 DA14) whiz by us and miss, but a smaller rock – estimated to be 50 feet wide – hit the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, causing extensive damage. And in the evening (Pacific Standard Time), another meteor was spotted over the San Francisco Bay Area, but thankfully caused no damage.

The Chelyabinsk meteor and 2012 DA14 were on completely different trajectories and were therefore unrelated events.  Quite possibly the third meteor sighting was unrelated to either of the others as well. We just live in the midst of a lot of falling rocks (i.e. the solar system) and sometimes we get hit.  Not very often, thankfully, but enough to warrant concern. If 2012 DA14 had hit the Earth’s atmosphere, for example, the estimated explosion would have been in the megaton range, enough to destroy a large city.

Now, for all of the previous history of the Earth, there has not been anything to be done about threatening space rocks. They were simply a fact of life, and for most of human history they were not even understood. But now we understand them, and we also have the technological capacity – should we choose to develop it – to find and stop many of these threats.

In other words our inability to stop these kinds of dangers are now our choice.

We need to take responsibility for this choice to do nothing. If we do not find the threats and develop ways to deal with them we are now negligent. We are negligent because we know the danger and yet proceed anyway, without doing anything to lessen the danger.

I’ve said this before: morality and technology are highly related. They are highly related because technology increases power, and increased power means increased moral responsibility.  The more evil you can do, the more your moral responsibility to not do that evil.  The more good you can do, the more good you are responsible to do. Our choice to not even fully know about the potential threats, much less prepare for them, is a choice to allow evil to happen, and for that we are responsible.

But now I have a prediction. As of yesterday, Russia is going to get serious about meteor and asteroid defense. Two hits in 105 years (the other being the Tunguska Blast) and Chelyabinsk being a center of nuclear research add some context. And that means Russia is going to start probing seriously powerful technologies which have dual use as seriously dangerous weapons. And (though the Cold War is over) that is going to make the United States take notice, and perhaps respond with its own research.  And that will  result in further countries (Europe, China) and then the UN taking notice.

We can consider the geopolitical situation to have been dealt an interesting card by Mother Nature. Hopefully this card, as a warning, will result in an orderly and unified human response towards these types of extraterrestrial threats. Ideally, some type of multinational research coalition can be formed to not only find more of these threats but to also figure out ways to stop them, and then, hopefully and with great caution, develop the actual means to neutralize these threats.

This will involve exceedingly dangerous research, because any technology capable of diverting an asteroid away from the Earth will also be able to divert one towards it. But, like geoengineering, this may be a technology that, for better or for worse, we are simply forced into. At this point in history, to not pursue asteroid defense is irrational because it takes a risk that simply ought not be taken: the risk that at any time, anywhere on Earth, millions – or worse –  could die from a potentially preventable disaster.

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