I guess we prefer our aliens to announce themselves

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Unformatted text preview: mental Studies adjunct faculty, 98 [Michael B., practiced environmental law in New York City since 1978, and is a partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter, and a member of the adjunct faculties of Columbia Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 3-27-98, New York Law Journal, Volume 219, Number 58, “Legal Issues in Defending Against Asteroids”, , accessed 6-28-11] If 4,000 lives a year are truly at stake in a program to guard against NEOs, one would ordinarily expect very large public expenditures to follow. The figures vary widely depending on the program involved, but a rule of thumb in assessing the costs and benefits of life-saving programs is that one life is valued at $4-8 million. At that rate, comet and asteroid detection would warrant $16 billion-32 billion per year. That exceeds what the astronomy establishment is seeking by a factor of more than a thousand. There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy: the statistical uncertainties involved (although the uncertainties in CERCLA risk assessments are not much lower); the fact that we tend psychologically to discount lives in future generations; and most important, the risk has an air of unreality about it, since no one is known ever to have been killed by a meteor. Unless the 1997 XF11 incident or the two forthcoming disaster movies on this theme (Paramount's Deep Impact and Disney's Armageddon) influence public opinion, until a big asteroid or comet is found to be heading our way (and the odds that that will happen in our lifetimes continue to be exceedingly small) they will continue to feel like a ridiculously small threat, despite the purely statistical odds of 4,000 deaths per year. (Ironically, the cost of these two films far exceeds that of a full-fledged NEO detection program.) In fact, the biggest threat that asteroids pose to mankind today is probably the excuse they can provide for continuing to deploy nuclear weapons. In 1996 there were two stark examples of this. In April, China refused to sign a treaty with Russia banning nuclear weapons testing, on the stated ground that such weapons might be needed to combat the asteroid threat. In September, a "Space Protection of Earth" conference was held at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center to consider building a system of nuclear-armed missiles that could be readied for launch in 90 minutes if an incoming comet were spotted. It seems obvious that the deployment of a nuclear weapons system in China or Russia (or anywhere else) poses a threat of accidental or malevolent mass destruction that dwarfs the odds that such a system will be suddenly needed to beat back a long-period comet or other atypical threat that arises with too little warning to let us develop a defensive system from scratch. Some U.S. scientists today advocate a testing program for nuclear explosions at remote asteroids to determine the parameters under which defensive measures wou...
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