The Cosmic Inevitability of Risk

Seth Jarvis

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, your lifetime probability of dying in a car crash is 1-in-100, but your probability of dying in a commercial airline accident is 1-in-100,000.With those statistics in mind, I like to think about the people who drive their cars like maniacs to get to the airport so they’re not late for their flight, and then spend their time flying in a state of high anxiety about every bump, jiggle and sound the airplane makes, thus proving beyond any doubt that human beings are not bound by nature to behave rationally. We can shrug and chuckle about that weakness, but our survival as a species may literally depend on our ability to do more than merely recognize our capacity for misunderstanding risk.People buy car insurance for when they drive, and flight insurance for when they fly. They also insure their homes, their boats, their businesses, their stamp collections, their pets, their health and their lives.

Why? Because people know that unwanted bad things sometimes do happen, even when the chances of those bad things happening are small. Even if you have never been in an accident yourself you see the evidence all around you that accidents do in fact happen. The nightly news is an endless conga-line of stories about unanticipated bad things happening to people.

Prudent people buy insurance, and the insurance they buy is based on an assessment of what kinds of risks they face, the odds of those risks becoming a reality, and how much it will cost to repair the damage if that risk ever becomes a reality.

Survival is a matter of estimating risk, and then deciding what you’re going to do once you understand those risks. Life is a gamble.

We not only estimate risks and buy insurance, we also take steps to minimize risks. We wear seatbelts while driving. We expect everyone driving around us to join us in risk-reducing behaviors by obeying traffic laws and having their cars inspected regularly to make sure their brakes work. We pass legislation to require airbags and seatbelts in cars.

But sometimes there’s no such thing as insurance – the bad thing you want to avoid is just so horrible that no insurance check in the universe would ever be enough to make things better. Reducing your level of risk then becomes your only option.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about risk, I want to you think for a moment about the dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period in Earth’s history.  Trust me, there’s a connection coming.

About 65 million years ago a smallish asteroid, probably about 6 or 7 miles in diameter, smacked the Earth at something like 45,000 miles per hour.

~65,000,000 years ago the dinosaurs had a really bad day. Art by Don Davis.

The impact was so violent that not only did the blast kill every living thing within 1,000 miles in all directions; it also filled the sky with so much sunlight-blocking dust and smoke that it caused a global drop in temperatures that killed 75% of the species alive on our planet, including the dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs had no clue this asteroid was coming to seal their doom. If the dinosaurs had telescopes and a space program, they could have known about it decades in advance and might have done something about it. But they didn’t, and so they couldn’t. Adios, dinos.

You can make a good argument that the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.

We do have a space program.

Which brings me to the subject of what happens in our little corner of the universe on the afternoon of Friday, February 15th.

Say hello to asteroid “2012 DA14.” It’s headed our way.

On that date, at about 12:45 PM Mountain Standard Time, a little asteroid called 2012 DA14 will whiz by Earth so close that it will pass inside the orbits of our communications satellites. That’s right – if you were on one of the satellites that beams TV signals to your house 2012 DA14 would pass between you and the Earth.

2012 DA14 (let’s call it “DA14”) is a rock about 150 feet in diameter – roughly the size of the Clark Planetarium building. It probably has a mass of about 140,000 tons.

A person with a moderately powerful telescope who knows where to aim it could even watch it go by.

There is no chance of DA14 hitting us. Zero. Zip. None. It’s close enough to us now that we can say that with certainty. Which is good, because if it did hit our planet it would release the energy of a large hydrogen bomb. That would be a very bad thing – and that’s just from a really tiny asteroid.

DA14 is simply one of thousands of “Earth-Crossing Asteroids” that call the inner solar system home and keep astronomers on their toes.

But the fact that DA14 is going to get this close to us creates a good opportunity to look around our planet at the 183 confirmed impact craters that attest to the simple, powerful reality that asteroid impacts on our planet are a fact of life. The next major asteroid impact is a matter of when, not if.

So now back to the subject of insurance and risk management.

You’re willing load your family into the minivan and hit the road for a Spring Break vacation to Disneyland, knowing that there’s a small but real chance you could meet with disaster as you drive. You know and accept the risks. The minivan just passed its safety inspection, you have your insurance paid-up, you’ve renewed your AAA membership, you’re a safe driver, and you’re scrupulous about everyone always wearing seatbelts. As risk-taking goes, you’re in pretty good shape.

But would you put the kids in the minivan and start driving to Anaheim if you knew that if anything bad happens, there is no such thing as a survivable outcome?

What level of risk is acceptable to you if the disaster you hope to avoid would involve certain death for not only you, but your entire family? One chance in a thousand? One in a million? How big a gambler are you?

How much would you be willing to spend on a car that helped you lower the odds of dying on the highway to an acceptable level?

Think about what we require of airliner safety so that you’ll willingly put you and your family in a metal tube and hurtle through the air at 500+ miles per hour seven miles above the ground.

Now apply that level of risk management to a planet-wide scale.  If we expect the odds of an accident-free flight to to be at least 99,999 out of 100,000, what odds would we demand to avoid the risk of the extinction of all humanity?

There are literally thousands of asteroids that have orbits around the Sun that get close enough to Earth to earn a raised eyebrow from astronomers.

PHA’s are “Potentially Hazardous Asteroids,” and NEA’s are “Near Earth Asteroids.” Both types are dangerous.

So far, the “Near Earth Asteroids” and “Potentially Hazardous Asteroids” cataloged to date offer us an array of exciting near misses, but nothing yet found (knock on wood) has our name on it.

But someday, and it’s only a question of how soon, astronomers will discover an asteroid of significant size that’s got us squarely in its cross hairs. Asteroid impacts have happened a lot in Earth’s past, and they’ll happen again in the future. The key concept here is “inevitable.” Our solar system is a lot like a grade school playground at recess – there’s a lot of hitting going on.

Pretend for a minute that NASA just announced that a mile-wide asteroid has been discovered with a 1-in-100 chance of smacking Earth in say, 2050. Chew on that scenario for a moment.

Maybe you think of 1-in-100 as long odds, but when the human race is at stake, are you willing to take that chance? Would you put your family on an airplane with a 1-in-100 chance of crashing? (I wouldn’t.)

What do we do when the astronomers say that in five more years they’ll have gathered enough observational data to refine their calculations of the asteroid’s path, at which time they’ll either know whether the asteroid’s chance of impact will be more like 1-in-5, or 1-in-500?

How do you spend those next five years while waiting for better observations to refine the risk estimates?  Twiddling your thumbs? Or thinking carefully about how best to nudge an asteroid should that nudge become necessary in order to save the human race?

This is the maddening thing about asteroids – predicting exactly where they’ll be decades into the future always involves a margin of error and the best you can hope to do more than a few months out is estimate odds. There is simply no such thing as absolute certainty regarding exactly where an asteroid will be ten years from now.

Would you get on an airliner with a 1-in-5 chance of crashing? Of course not. How about 1-in-500?

Hmm… Now we’re stuck evaluating costs vs. risks vs. benefits. This quickly becomes complicated.

What level of uncertainty about asteroid impact would cause us to take action as a species to avoid human beings going the way of the dinosaurs?

Would we accept a level risk for our species that was riskier than the risk we tolerate for people on airliners?

Doesn’t it make sense that we would adopt a standard of risk for extinction by asteroid that was actually lower than what we find acceptable for an airliner? We are after all talking about billions of people, not just a couple of hundred people.

Turn your attention back to that hypothetical one mile-wide asteroid with an estimated 1-in-100 chance of hitting Earth in 2050.

No – we won’t be sending Bruce Willis to blow it up with an H-bomb at the last second. Dumb movie, even dumber plan.

But, with a few decades advance notice and with a lot of hard, smart work and international cooperation, there are many workable options that could let us slowly and gently nudge the asteroid enough to dramatically lower the risks of impact, reducing the odds from 1-in-100 to say, 1-in-1,000.

This “gravity tug” could slowly change the orbit of an asteroid. What’s that worth to us?

For the first time in human history, we would have the ability to “just say no” to a major natural disaster.

Would you support an international effort to spend one or two trillion dollars over the next 20 years to do that? What is it worth to all of us to save the lives of a few billion people and avoid sending the surviving population back to the Stone Age?

When and how do we have the national conversation about risk vs. cost vs. value where human extinction, or close to it, is concerned?

As 2012 DA14 whizzes past us on February 15th, maybe we could begin talking about this and understanding the long-term question of what really does distinguish us from the dinosaurs.

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4 thoughts on “The Cosmic Inevitability of Risk

  1. What a fascinatiing and well-written article. Thanks for sharing this piece; I hope it leads to more widely published and discussed articles on the subject. I also hope it spurs more public interest in a languishing space program.

  2. Thanks for your kind words.

    YES – I hope we can get people thinking about this. The thinking we do on this subject now as an academic exercise will be invaluable when (not if) we have to think about it as an urgent matter of survival.

    There are now 1,374 asteroids that NASA has identified as “Potentially Hazardous.”

    We ignore them at our peril.

    In terms of the potential for scientific and technological advancement, economic devolopment, international cooperation and practical value – this should be something everyone should be discussing.

  3. We would like to know where we point our telescope in order to see it. We would like to have an asteroid birthday party

  4. Stephanie,

    Sky and Telescope Magazine has a nice online article about the asteroid that includes a simple star chart showing where 2012 DA14 will appear in the sky. BUT- it’s a chart that assumes you are viewing from the center of the Earth. Hmmm…

    Because the asteroid is so close to Earth, and you’re _not_ viewing from the center of the planet, your location on Earth becomes important and where/when you see it in the sky will depend on where you are on Earth.

    To get a an accurate description of where you’ll need to look for your particular observing location, you’ll want to generate an ephemeris from the NASA/JPL official site for such things.

    The output will tell you exactly where in the sky, in terms of hours of Right Ascension and degrees of Declination, 2012 DA14 will be at a given time (expressed in Universal Time).

    Below is a sample set of inputs I created when I prepared my own chart. Note that you need to specify the object you want to observe (2012 DA14), your location, the start & stop times (output will be in Universal Time), and time increment (I recommend 5-10 minutes).

    Ephemeris Type [change] : OBSERVER
    Target Body [change] : Asteroid (2012 DA14)
    Observer Location [change] : Salt Lake City, UT ( 111°53’27.6”W, 40°45’23.0”N )
    Time Span [change] : Start=2013-02-15, Stop=2013-02-17, Step=10 m
    Table Settings [change] : defaults
    Display/Output [change] : default (formatted HTML)

    If you’re going to try to observe it, generate the ephemeris for your observing location, get a good star chart with sufficient detail so you can pinpoint exact locations in terms of Right Ascension and Declination, make the Universal to local time adjustments, and carefully point your telescope at a star you’re confident is on the path of the asteroid and wait for it to come into your field of view.

    The asteroid is going to be dim, and I recommend at least a 6″ telescope and at least 150x magnification under dark skies. It is, after all, only the size of a building and tens of thousands of miles from you by the time observers in North America can try to see it.

    Good luck!

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