Danica Remy is the President of the B612 Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid impacts, and we recently interviewed her on the Futurati Podcast.  

She makes the provocative claim that asteroid impacts are the one major existential risk that we have a pretty good idea how to solve. Evidently, it won't be nearly as much of a technological or political lift as I'd originally thought. 

Because this discussion contained a detailed discussion on one promising way of mitigating existential risk I thought it would be of interest here. 

Show notes

  • Danica describes herself as a 'techno-optimist', meaning a person who believes very strongly that technological developments are going to have a positive impact on the future. Trent identifies himself as being techno-volatile (meaning he thinks that the impact of technology could be good or bad depending upon how it's used), and Danica largely agrees, clarifying that she's '80% an optimist'.
  • One thing that really drew Danica to the field of asteroid detection and mitigation is that it's one of the only existential risks we actually know how to solve.
  • However much ground might be left to cover in building asteroid-detecting probes, or coming up with ways of quickly and economically diverting asteroids on a collision course with Earth, we have a pretty good idea of what a solution would look like and the basic technology exists today.
  • What's more, mitigating the existential risk of asteroid impacts doesn't require that many people and so is a relatively small coordination problem.
  • Early in the life of the B612 Institute the focus was more on deflection, i.e. using something like an #enhanced gravity tractor or kinetic impactor to divert an asteroid off its current trajectory and onto another one. Over time this focus shifted to detection--the most plausible big step forward will likely be in asteroid mapping.
  • To that end, the Vera Rubin Observatory is being built and should go live in a couple of years. Danica likens it to 'Google Maps' for space, and as the project is planned to be open source, it should be straightforward for programmers, data analysts, and similar quantitative folks to contribute to charting the heavens.
  • Thomas jokingly asks whether or not there's an 'FBI most-wanted' list for asteroids. It turns out that such a thing already exists. The list is compiled from data maintained by the Minor Planet Center, which is a de facto repository for the world's asteroid data. The Jet Propulsion Lab and the European Space Agency use these data to calculate actual sizes and trajectories to arrive at a list of the most plausible asteroidal threats to Earth.
  • So far we've done a reasonably good job in mapping asteroids using ground-based observatory equipment, but there will simply not be any substitute for getting probes spread throughout the solar system.
  • Our current approach is helping us discover 3000 new asteroids a year. Current data put the number of asteroids which will come near Earth at 28,000. Most of the ones that have been discovered have been larger, as they're easier to see, and there remain many more to be found of smaller but still threatening size.
  • There's another 3,000,000 in the solar system bigger than the one that blew up in Chelyabinsk in 2013.
  • This is where new technologies and projects will likely contribute. We need better launch capabilities, probes with sensors for finer-grained asteroid detection, and the political will to put real resources behind these endeavors.



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