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Ed Lu on saving the world from asteroids

B612 Foundation. Asteroids present a real threat to human civilization — and Ed Lu, pictured here, is trying to save us.

Octavian Report: Can you tell us how you came to be an astronaut?

Ed Lu: I am an electrical engineer and a physicist by training. I was working as a scientist, sent in an application to NASA, and was accepted. Lo and behold, I’m moving to Houston, Texas, in 1995. I spent 12 great years at NASA. Flew the Space Shuttle a couple of times and the Russian Soyuz.

Just two weeks after we lost Columbia, I was asked to fly the first two-person skeleton crew to the International Space Station (ISS). I was selected to learn how to fly a Russian ship in just a couple of months. I spent six months on the ISS with just one other person, a Russian cosmonaut, while the accident investigation was beginning for Columbia.

Then I went to Google for a number of years. I ran Advanced Projects there, which included their mapping division. I’ve been running the B612 Foundation for the last number of years, working on the problem of keeping the Earth from being hit by bad asteroid impacts.

OR: How did you first become concerned about the threat asteroids present to humanity?

Lu: Let’s go way back. As a small kid, I loved dinosaurs and I loved anything to do with airplanes, rockets, that sort of stuff. I always remember my favorite dinosaur book when I was a kid. At the very end, after describing every single kind of dinosaur, it got to what killed them off: “We have no idea.”

That was the case for many, many years. I remember in grad school when the theory that an asteroid had killed off the dinosaurs first became well-known. They found the smoking gun when they found the crater. It was a real moment for us. It was like, “Wow! That’s what happened.” It’s always been in the back of my mind.

Then, you get to space. Many, many years later, as an astronaut, you look at the moon, you look at the Earth. I spent all those months just staring at both. Every time I looked out the window, I saw the Earth and the moon, and you can see craters on the moon caused by asteroid impacts. But then you realize that the Earth’s been hit by more by asteroids than the moon — not that there’s more craters, they’re just covered up by oceans, weather, things like that. You realize that, at some point, we have to stop it.

OR: How does that concern coalesce into B612 and Sentinel?

Lu: The B612 Foundation is dedicated to preventing major asteroid impacts on Earth. It turns out that it’s entirely within our capability to do that. The very first thing you have to do is to find and track them, because if you don’t know an asteroid’s coming, obviously there’s nothing you can do about it.

Actually, it turns out that if you know an asteroid is coming decades before it’s going to hit the Earth — which is quite possible — then deflecting is actually not that difficult. The entire endeavor boils down to finding and tracking these Near Earth Objects early, long before they hit the Earth. What we had actually done a number of years ago, as the telescopic surveys weren’t proceeding as quickly as anybody wanted, was hatch a plan to build our own telescope called Sentinel.

We weren’t able to raise the money for that. But since that time, a number of other telescopes have popped up, all federally funded. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in particular, which is being built in Chile right now by the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, is going to find an awful lot of asteroids. There’s another asteroid-hunting telescope that NASA is proposing that has a chance to fly, still. That would be a wonderful thing.

What we at B612 are doing is really looking at all the technologies that are out there. And there are other things can we do because those two telescopes are not really going to find all of the asteroids that are dangerous. They’re going to find the very large ones. But the great majority of the potentially dangerous ones are not the kind that would wipe out life on Earth or even take out a whole continent, but the ones that might destroy, say, a small country or a state, or even a city. Those turn out to be much more numerous than the very large ones. At B612, we’re looking at ways to find and track those smaller asteroids now.

OR: Can you talk about the relative dangers and relative sizes of the asteroids that might be headed our way?

Lu: If you look at the asteroid that wiped out this region called Tunguska in 1908, it took out an area roughly the size of the Los Angeles Basin. You can go there today and still see this enormous area that was cleared out by that impact. That asteroid was only about 150 feet across. Not very large. Think small apartment building in size. Again, it took out an area the size of an enormous metropolitan area.

It turns out those types of asteroids are quite numerous. There’s about a million of them in the inner Solar System on orbits that come near Earth. We know — because we know which areas of the sky we’ve been able to survey thus far and what fraction of the coverage we have, which turns out to be not very good. We’ve found about one percent of those. The remaining 99 percent of those potentially dangerous asteroids are just out there.

OR: What kind of obstacles have you faced and overcome in pursuing this mission, both technologically and in terms of marshalling political resources?

Lu: There’s actually great progress in both areas. We’re investigating some technologies that could allow us to find these million or so asteroids that currently are there, but no other telescopes have plans to find. We think we can do that. We’e privately funding that effort. It’s going quite well.

On the international front, the geopolitical front, it’s going actually very well, too. The U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has really come to understand this as a big problem. There’s a number of countries working on it, including the United States. Many of the countries in Europe are working on the issue, along with Japan, Canada, even Russia. There are a number of scientists working there. It’s being recognized as an important problem.

Even here, within the United States, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy just recently came out with a report in December of 2016 outlining the strategic goals of the U.S. government for preventing an asteroid impact. What they did was assemble the relevant people from the Department of Defense, NASA, even FEMA and other agencies, and then said, “What should be our goals?” Of course, they came up with a number-one goal, which is to “find and track these asteroids.” But they’re now required to come up with a plan for how they will implement their plan to reach their goals. They are on the hook to have that completed within a year.

OR: Can you talk about the new technologies you mentioned that your B612 team is working on to improve our detection abilities?

Lu: B612 is looking at ways to use much smaller telescopes to find and track asteroids. The cost of telescopes is very much related to their size. The smaller they get, the less expensive they get. Obviously, there’s a good reason for doing that. But what we are attempting to do is to substitute very, very high-performance computing and data processing on the telescope for essentially a large lens or a large mirror. The idea being that we are going to take much longer exposures and compensate for all the various motions of all the asteroids digitally and therefore still be able to track these asteroids with telescopes people previously did not think would be able to find very many asteroids. It’s quite promising.

OR: How do you rank the threat an asteroid presents against other natural disasters — earthquakes, floods, et cetera?

Lu: Earthquakes generally only go up to certain size. An earthquake in one location doesn’t take out the rest of the country. Asteroids can range in size from the kind that might only have a very limited effect to those with a very large effect that could wipe out all life on Earth. There’s just a much wider range.

The bigger asteroids are much rarer than your typical earthquake. Pick a city like San Francisco. You get, on average, every few hundred years a major earthquake in San Francisco. But unlike earthquakes, asteroid impacts aren’t limited to known locations such as where fault lines are. They could land anywhere. They’re very, very different.

I’ll give you some numbers. If you look at the largest asteroid impact in any given century, just on average, what do you expect to be the largest? You can ask the same question about earthquakes. On a particular fault line, what’s the biggest earthquake we can expect in 100 years? That’s how they plan for building codes. If you ask what’s the largest asteroid impact on Earth that’s going to happen in this century, the answer is: it’ll be roughly the size of the one we saw in 1908. In other words, the impact will be approximately 10 times as large as all our current nuclear weapons all going off in one place at one time.

The Earth’s a big place. If you throw an asteroid down in a random spot on Earth, it could be the middle of the desert or it could be London. You just don’t know.

So the odds are what they are. I would say the odds that an asteroid hits a city are actually small, but there would be geopolitical consequences, economic consequences, and social consequences if an impact like that occurred.

The beauty of it is that we can actually stop this process. Unlike earthquakes and these other natural disasters you’re mentioning. Nobody has any idea how you stop earthquakes or hurricanes or anything like that — but we know how to prevent asteroid impacts.

The cost is probably about the same as constructing a large public building. The cost of stopping asteroids is in the range — for good, from this point forward, forever — of a one-time investment of around $1 billion. What does $1 billion get you? It builds the TransBay Terminal in San Francisco; it builds you a major art museum. It’s that scale. And that $1 billion investment includes the telescopes, spacecraft, launch and operations to detect and deflect an asteroid — and protects the Earth from this point forward, forever. That’s, to me, a good investment.

OR: What are the current methods used for asteroid deflection?

Lu: The simplest method is to simply run into an asteroid with a small spacecraft and nudge it slightly.

When I said it costs $1 billion, that includes the technology to deflect an asteroid. That is everything. You don’t need to keep it on standby. You just need to know you can do it, because the actual cases where you use it would be rare. As long as you know you can use it, and as long as you have warnings coming decades in advance, then you can build the deflection device or spacecraft when you need one.

It’s really an investment in “know-how.” To me, that seems like a great investment for all sorts of other reasons. It’s the development of space. It’s the development of technology and science that helps us eventually take our civilization out into the solar system. To me, you get that regardless.

It seems to me that finally building this great map of where everything is in the solar system is the first step to our moving outwards into space, as well as protecting the Earth.

That’s really what this is. This is a map. It’s not like the kind of map that you think about where everything is still. It’s a dynamical moving map of the locations of all the asteroids in our solar system.

OR: Is private space flight the way of the future? Do you think we’ll reach Mars in our lifetimes? In our children’s?

Lu: I am 100 percent certain that private space flight is going to be a big part of the opening-up of the solar system in a very similar way to aviation. More than 100 years ago, when aviation started, it was supported by government contracts. Even the Wright brothers were getting government contracts. 99.99 percent of flights today are not government-operated. They’re private and commercial. I think that transformation is going to happen in space.

It is a process. It’s going to take some time. We have to develop the markets. We need to bring people out there. But it’s something that’s going to happen eventually. If you were able to go a couple of hundred years off in the future and look back at this time, you wouldn’t recognize it. There will be human economic activity all around the solar system, not just on the planet that we started from. I think that’s amazing.

I am certain this is going to happen. Neither I nor anybody else can tell you the timescale on which it’s going to happen. If I was that good at predicting the future, then I’d be a rich, rich person.

On Mars, I believe human beings will reach it. Again: I don’t know exactly when and I don’t know exactly by what means this is going to happen. Will it be primarily government-supported? Will it be primarily commercial? Will it be some combination? I don’t know.

OR: Do you think there is other intelligent life in the universe?

Lu: I would find it hard to believe if there wasn’t life elsewhere in the universe. One thing we know is that nearly every star out there has some sort of planets around it. Many of them we do know to be about the right distance from their stars to potentially support life. That’s just in our galaxy.

Whether or not any of them is advanced enough to become intelligent, I don’t know. I would suspect that somewhere — and I don’t even know if that’s in our galaxy — that there would be.

Remember that any civilization that does become advanced has to solve a few problems. Once they have the technology, they presumably can build things like nuclear weapons. They have to avoid killing themselves off. They also have to solve the asteroid problem. If you’re part of a planetary system, there are small planetary bodies that sometimes run into each other. That’s what happens here. About every million years or so on this planet, we get hit by something large enough to take out human civilization. It’s happened thousands of times on this planet. We’ve had impacts that, had you had an advanced civilization there at the time, it would have been wiped out. It’s something that any advanced civilization must solve eventually.

Are those things being solved around the world or around the universe? I hope so. But I don’t know. It’s sheer guesswork. We don’t have any data one way or another. We’ll find out.

OR: What’s it like being in outer space?

Lu: It’s awesome. I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to look back and see the Earth. I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was amazing. It was amazing what human beings can build and do when we work together. I was grateful for the experience.

OR: What do you think has to happen for the world to really develop the political will to fight asteroids?

Lu: What we’re doing at B612 is going ahead and developing this technology to find and track asteroids. We think we’re going to complement really well these enormous, expensive government telescopes. We’re hoping we’ll be able to develop this technology to drive down the cost of finding the smaller asteroids.

I suspect that what’s going to happen is we’re going to build this map of the solar system, “we” meaning human beings in general. We will find asteroids that are coming very, very close to the Earth. At some point, we’re going to find one that is going to actually hit the Earth. Then, our hand will be forced. We’ll have to do something. From that point forward, we should have the technology in hand to solve the problem. If you look at the time scale in which it’s going to happen, it’s in our lifetimes. I think that’s pretty amazing. We’re actually going to modify the solar system so that this planet — the third planet from the Sun — doesn’t get hit by large asteroids anymore. That’s pretty amazing.

OR: Can you talk about the purpose and origins of Asteroid Day?

Lu: The purpose of Asteroid Day is to bring awareness of asteroids — in all their aspects; not just the threats, but our scientific interest in them and their potentially commercial uses — to the general public. It’s been declared an official day by the United Nations to hold events on June 30 each year — June 30th being the anniversary of the asteroid impact in Tunguska. There are hundreds and hundreds and probably this year even thousands of self-organized events at museums and science centers around the world being planned for Asteroid Day. They’re going to make it a big thing.