The U.S. government has decided to save some of its old nuclear weapons that were scheduled for disassembly next year to determine whether they could be good for blasting earthbound asteroids.
Sounds like someone pulled that plan straight out of a sci-fi script, but it was actually mentioned deep down in a Government Accountability Office report on the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency that manages the nation’s atomic-weapons arsenal.
The NNSA described the old warheads as an “irreplaceable national asset” that should be kept around “pending a senior-level government evaluation of their use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids,” according to the report. Perhaps someone just watched “Armageddon” a few too many times.
The plan, which was reported this summer in a NukeWatch.org article and more recently by The Wall Street Journal, is one of several ways the Obama administration has focused on asteroid defense in recent years. President Obama has also proposed an asteroid-lassoing mission that would capture and fling one of the massive space rocks into orbit near the moon so NASA can study it.
The mission is close to moving forward. NASA plans to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016, and the agency has invited the worldwide public to submit messages and images that could be placed in a time capsule.
There’s plenty of room for skepticism about the administration’s recent proposals, but asteroids pose a serious threat to human existence. Many scientists believe that a rock roughly 6 miles wide may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs after smashing into Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
Objects of that size only strike Earth once every 100 million years on average, and the next hit is not expected for at least the next 100 years or possibly much longer, according to a 2010 report from the National Research Council.
Still, try telling that to Russia, where a meteor streaked across the sky and broke up over the city of Chelyabinsk last year. The incident caused a shock wave that smashed windows, collapsed roofs and injured at least 1,200 people.