William E. Burrows – September 26, 2013

William E. Burrows, the only non-scientist on the National Research Council’s Near Earth Object Survey and Detection Panel, spoke on the threat to mankind from asteroids and comets and what can be done in planetary defense.

Mr. Burrows was a journalist for six years for such newspapers as the Washington Post and a professor of journalism at New York University for 35 years, where he created the graduate Science and Environmental Reporting Program in 1981.  He has written extensively on NASA, space exploration, space espionage, superweapons and national security and has received numerous awards for his writing.

Burrows just completed his book “The Asteroid Threat”, for which he said that he had considered, and rejected, as titles “Watch Your Asteroids” and “Preparation A.” He commented that since 1900 there have been several instances of meteorites or asteroids striking the earth, the largest when an asteroid created widespread destruction in Siberia in 1908. Burrows noted that there are more than 150 impact craters identified on land, and probably many more cases of sizable impacts in the oceans.  From information transmitted from Voyager II on its grand tour of the four outer planets and their moons, scientists learned that every solid body studied had impact craters. In 1980, scientists discovered a massive impact crater off the Yucatan Peninsula where, 55 million years ago, an asteroid a kilometer across wreaked massive destruction that threw huge quantities of matter into the atmosphere and, many scientists believe, wiped out the dinosaurs. The expected movies and novels followed this discovery.

Scientists have learned much about NEOs (Near Earth Objects) – small objects bombard the earth every day, but large ones come by much less frequently; and we are developing strategies to deal with the threat. Spacecraft called “Sentinels” — large infrared telescopes to watch for threats  — can be deployed around the earth. Spacecraft (Russia has looked into one manned with a ballistic missile) can be deployed to nudge threatening objects off course. If deployed well, perhaps years ahead of time, it wouldn’t require too great a nudge. Burrows also suggests that man spread out — first establish a colony on the moon and then colonize beyond.

Burrows argues that we should have a national and international defense strategy that would include such steps as backing up records and artifacts of civilization, such as the Library of Congress, so that they do not go the way of the Library of Alexandria; a full-fledged Department of Planetary Defense in the U.S.; and an international initiative in the U.N. to coordinate efforts to identify and deal with threats and begin space colonization. Burrows concluded by noting that we are not Russians, Chinese and Americans, we are earthlings.

In the Q & A, Burrows noted the following:

A far-off object’s trajectory can be modeled by tracking it for several weeks.

He recommends three infrared Sentinel craft be deployed around the earth.

NASA is monitoring the jumble of man-made space debris that is circling the earth. It is a problem – working satellites are at risk and objects fall to earth.

He does not believe that an asteroid would cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would wipe out electronic systems.

He would hope that a U.N. program would not fall victim to the usual political machinations and subterfuge; it is an effort that is in the interest of us all.