On Asteroid Defense And The Constitution

Thoughts from Pejman in response to a snippy post from Mark Kleiman.

Most of the discussion sidesteps the real issue, which is who is being defended, not by whom (if anyone) are we being attacked? The latter issue would only determine which government agency would be responsible for the response, not whether or not a federal response was constitutional. For instance, if the Klingons were using a gravity tractor to divert the asteroid to hit the country, then it would be up to the Air Force (or preferably the US Space Guard, if it exists at the time) to deal with it. If on the other hand, it’s a natural occurrence, then at least in terrestrial terms, it would be up the space equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers, because it would be more in the nature of something like anticipatory flood control. Though (again preferably) both of these functions — defense and management of nature — might be under the aegis of the Space Guard. The key difference between them is that in the one case, the best defense might be a robust offense (i.e., send warships off to punish and prevent the Klingons), whereas this wouldn’t apply to a natural event.

As to whether or not asteroid defense in general, whether natural, or launched by Klingons, is constitutional, would depend to a degree on the nature of the warning we have. If, for instance, we know that it will hit the planet, but don’t know exactly where or when (and the when determines the where to a large degree, because it depends on what part of the planet has turned to be the front of it from the asteroid’s perspective at the time it hits), then it’s not just a national defense issue, but a planetary one, and we’d have to coordinate with other nations. The only acceptable solution, of course, would be to divert it from hitting the planet entirely, but in doing so, it could be that we end up making things worse (e.g., having it hit Lucifer’s Hammer style in the Pacific with accompanying ocean boiling and tsunamis, as opposed to just hitting land and creating a little ice age from all the stuff tossed up into the atmosphere, not to mention killing all the people in the vicinity).

Once we undertake to try to prevent such a tragedy, we implicitly accept legal responsibility for the outcome of our actions. I can easily imagine things getting bogged down in an international debate over the issue, which is why Rusty Schweikart wants to get the UN involved, which I can also easily imagine would only make things worse.

It’s actually similar to the arguments about hurricane diversion. Suppose we could not prevent or dampen hurricanes, but we could steer them? We might then divert them from hitting the expensive real estate in Florida but instead steer them into the Gulf where they could hit the much cheaper beaches in Mexico, for which we’d presumably compensate them. But getting these kinds of agreements would be problematic, unless (and probably even if) the level of technology was highly certain. Suppose we did have the capability to precisely steer an asteroid (this would be useful for mining them). What kind of international agreements would have to be put in place to allow us to do this? Certainly the 1972 Liability Convention would be viewed as insufficient to set hearts at ease in much of the rest of the world — no one is going to be happy about being compensated after their country has been accidentally turned into a smoking crater. I can’t see, though, how there would be anything unconstitutional per se about our doing such things.

As commenters over there note, this whole discussion mainly an opportunity for Kleiman to trot out a straw man (“Tea Partiers think that anything they dislike is unconstitutional”).

47 thoughts on “On Asteroid Defense And The Constitution”

  1. The whole question becomes moot if we colonize and develope the inner solar system as quickly as possible.

  2. Was it done by the Klingons or nature is a distinction without a difference with regard to the asteroid itself. If it would cause extinction or just a lot of damage, common sense says you do something about it written laws be damned. Natural law says you defend your life, liberty and property.

    Constitutionality then becomes a secondary issue we can discuss. We already defend ourselves from natural disasters so I’d say that question has been answered.

    The real question is when are we going to put that damned general purpose ship in LEO from which all things follow?

    We have the deflector shield.

  3. Rand: It sounds like you have not read Jim’s paper yet. The Space Guard is a proposal for a civil organization like the coast guard, not a primarily military one. ‘Klingons’ would have to be the province of a primarily mlitary organization, a Space Navy or Space Force of some sort.

    As much as my USAF friends might think otherwise, in the long run space military postings are much closer to serving on a naval vessel for months or years of a posting than it is taking off on a mission that might take a day at most with an interncontinental two way flight with multiple refuelings but more likely a matter of a few hours. Even if we form a USSF out of the USAF, it will eventually be driven to naval traditions just because they are more appropriate.

  4. Dale,

    The Coast Guard is not a civil organization. From their website:

    The U.S. Coast Guard is one of the five armed forces of the United States and the only military organization within the Department of Homeland Security.

    Descriptors of “Armed Forces” and “Military Organization” does not apply to a civil organization.

  5. Of course it’s constitutional. The President commands the Coast Guard, doesn’t he? And the Army Corps of Engineers. Geez, what a moron.

    These people seem to have a very fuzzy idea of the difference between what happens inside the border, to citizens, and what happens on the other side. I guess this is how they get worked up over the “unconstitutionality” of the CIA tapping the sat phone calls of a Pakistani in Waziristan.

    For that matter, they seem to have a fuzzy idea of the distinction between actual action and legal games. I expect a good quarter of them believe that a decent asteroid defence involves finding the right person to sue to stop the rock. Or maybe we just need to figure out how to word a restraining order correctly. I mean, geez, if the Supreme Court issued it, or maybe the World Court, and they’re the highest law of all, that should certainly trump the law of gravity.

  6. Isn’t this sort of legal and bureaucratic wrangling prior to an asteroid impact exactly the topic of the next Niven-Pournelle book?

  7. Considering that the difference, on the opposite end of the solar system, between something in a mid-eccentricity elliptical orbit hitting the earth and missing the earth is on the order of 100 m/sec delta-V, I don’t think it would be terribly difficult to get it to miss the Earth, provided we launch in time (~2-3 years prior to impact).

    Under a situation with a munition/pusher launched at the asteroid with enough warning, I don’t see why we would ever have to choose between having it directly impact and indirectly impact the Earth. If we move it enough, it will miss.

  8. Of course, being able to deal with the problem elegantly requires a survey of all large asteroids to within a few m/sec of their velocity to accurately fix their orbital coordinates.

  9. Also, if we blow the asteroid into fragments, none of those fragments are going to hit, provided we do it far enough away – again, it is the +/- 100 m/sec thing. At that distance, hitting the earth occupies a relatively tiny area of velocity-position space. The odds of a fragment from an energetic breakup occupying that region is small. These scenarios might make for good hollywood, but they prime us for ridiculous decisions when it comes to asteroid defense.

  10. A very interesting article, thank you.

    However, my concern is that legal and jurisdictional issues would actually be considered in the case of an incoming asteroid impact.

    Frankly, if we as a species got bogged down in that nonsense to the detriment of actually stopping the thing, we deserve to become extinct.

    The idea of UN involvement makes me shudder… I can see them wasting months of critical months of critical time with resolution after resolution demanding, with ever harsher wording, that the asteroid change its course…

  11. Taking Arizona CJ’s point seriously, I don’t see them as trying to order the asteroid to change course. I do see them making a levy on the US and possibly the EU to pay for defense, and a technology transfer to the “third world.”

    Mainland China calls itself “third world” still, doesn’t it?

  12. I am surprised that the General Welfare clause has not been discussed. I can’t imagine anything less conducive to the general welfare than being squished like a bug by a giant rock. The parallel with Coast Guard action to mitigate natural threats to navigation also seems fairly clear.

    The interesting question to me is if an asteroid has clearly been identified as a threat, and two different space-faring nations (us and Russia, for example) propose different and possibly incompatible strategies. (For example, the Russians are much less inhibited in the use of nuclear devices for civil tasks, as we discovered during the BP oil leak.) If (as in such a case) both nations are permanent Security Council members, the UN becomes (even more) useless, as either party can veto the other’s solution.

    It is also the case that, in the event that somebody attempts to alter or destroy such an asteroid, and pieces of either the apparatus used in the attempt, or pieces of the asteroid created by breakup of the asteroid, strike the Earth and cause damage, a claim coild be made against the state that undertook the action under the Liability Convention. They would argue that the pieces of the asteroid constituted “space objects” within the meaning of the Convention, and that by causing them to come into existence in space, the state that undertook the action became the “launching state” of the object, and thus subject to absolute liability for any damages caused on Earth. Intent or negligence has nothing to do with it under absolute liability. You broke it, you own it.

  13. I don’t live in the US, but this scenario would affect me, so here goes: Imagine that a Dinosaur Killer is discovered on collision course, with limited time to intercept, and that without action the rock will land in the ocean (causing tsunamis, hurricanes, all sorts of other problems) and with said action the rock can be diverted – but only far enough to land in the continental USA. What happens then? It’s fairly clear that the land impact would cause less damage overall and also less damage to the USA – but would the ridiculous number of lawyers in the USA, in this scenario, prevent effective action? After all, it is at least arguable that doing nothing leaves nobody liable…

    There is another issue here. The technology of asteroid and comet deflection is very much a two-edged sword, for obvious reasons.

  14. Once we undertake to try to prevent such a tragedy, we implicitly accept legal responsibility for the outcome of our actions.

    Maybe we can divert the asteroid by throwing all the lawyers at it.

    Or aim the asteroid to hit a giant legal convention.

  15. I don’t live in the US, but this scenario would affect me, so here goes: Imagine that a Dinosaur Killer is discovered on collision course, with limited time to intercept, and that without action the rock will land in the ocean (causing tsunamis, hurricanes, all sorts of other problems) and with said action the rock can be diverted – but only far enough to land in the continental USA.

    You can dream all you want but the US isn’t going to commit suicide to save Europe.

  16. If I were running the show, we Americans would volunteer to take the land impact just to show the rest of the world how bad-ass we are.

    Kidding. Steer it into the Moon a la Michael McCollum’s Thunderstrike, then recover the volatiles.

  17. A Space Guard would indeed be Constitutional under either/both the “Common Defence” clause under “provide for the general welfare” as it does both. Even if the impact is outside the U.S. the potential political/economic impact would justify it. For example if it hits in Saudi Arabia and disrupts oil imports.

    By contrast there is NO Constitutional justification for NASA now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is gone.

    So one easy solution in line with the Tea Party goals of only funding those activities in line with a strict interpretation of the Constitution would be to close NASA and then create a new organization, The U.S. Space Guard. NASA assets, like KSC and the ISS could be transferred to the U.S. Space Guard while the rest could be simply sold off to reduce the national debt. I am sure NASA Centers like JSC, Ames, MSFC, Glenn and Goddard could bring a good price even in this depressed real estate market. 🙂

    BTW President’s Obama’s goal of sending human missions to Asteroids and out sourcing ISS support would fit in much better with a Space Guard then NASA since the Space Guard would start by out sourcing its launch needs…

  18. A US Space Guard better be formed as a branch of the military, because otherwise the Democrats will see that it’s unionized and doesn’t discriminate against blind black women for piloting jobs, and then we’re screwed. Imagine — and I apologize in advance for making you want to claw your eyes out afterward — putting the TSA in charge of asteroid defense.

  19. In fact, while we’re at it, imagine putting the TSA in charge of monitoring and approving your health care expenses, and you’ll understand why Obamacare makes any rational human being flee in horror screaming.

  20. Fair enough, Larry J – but the scenario I depicted only allows, realistically, for a Pacific or Atlantic strike. Either one means that doing nothing loses the USA one of its coastlines. All of one of its coastlines.

  21. Yeah, but I live 6800 feet above sea level in Colorado. A sea strike would heavily damage the coasts but we could evacuate people in those areas to the middle of the country. Deliberately taking a land strike to preserve the coasts or even more absurdly to “take one for the team” to save other countries would be stupid. It isn’t going to happen no matter how much you might want it to.

  22. Titus, I want to imagine the TSA in the only really valuable role it could play: as a recruiting organization for passengers on Golgafrincham Ark B.

  23. “…Pacific or Atlantic strike. Either one means that doing nothing loses the USA one of its coastlines. All of one of its coastlines.”

    Pacific, then. Comparatively steeper shorelines. Won’t wash so far inland…

  24. How about the Yellowstone Caldera? It’d probably go off, regardless. Maybe a direct strike would actually reduce the damage.

    If we could steer to either the Pacific or the Atlantic we could steer it to Canada. It’d be hard on the polar bear, but the North is lightly populated. If we can move the thing at all, we’re talking months if not years of lead time–plenty of time to evacuate. Heck, they might get another Sudbury mine out of it.

  25. Daver, that’s an interesting point. A big rock might well set off various geologically unstable areas – Yellowstone (entire USA affected), San Andreas (West Coast), the New Madrid fault (large chunk of the Midwest), Cumbre Vieja (important to the USA, the East Coast goes).

    Might well make quite a mess of earthquake and volcano zones more or less anywhere on the planet, really. A lot depends on how big it is; a Chixculub re-run would probably kill billions, no matter where it lands.

    Two more points. First, this scenario is (to say it one more time) one of the better reasons for moving at least some of human civilisation into space – because it would make it easier to prevent something like this, and also because it would then matter less anyway. And it’s worth considering the possible benefits of a convenient Tunguska-sized strike…

  26. How about the Yellowstone Caldera? It’d probably go off, regardless. Maybe a direct strike would actually reduce the damage.

    If anything, I’d say it’d make things worse as a sort of force multiplier. After all, the Yellowstone Caldera might go off in the next two hundred thousand years. An asteroid strike of sufficient size insures that it goes off now while the Earth has to already endure the effects of a large asteroid strike with perhaps a much larger eruption than normal for the caldera (after all you’d be stripping most of the weight holding the magma body and the deeper hotspot reserves down). We might get a large basalt flood event (think the Columbia Plateau floods which filled in eastern Oregon and parts of eastern Washington) in addition to an usually large caldera eruption. Certainly sounds like “How can we make this much worse?” speculation to me.

  27. If anything, I’d say it’d make things worse as a sort of force multiplier.

    As Fletcher notes above, a lot depends on the size of the impacter. If it’s Chicxulub-grade we’d barely notice Yellowstone going off because of it.

    But as Daver points out,

    If we can move the thing at all, we’re talking months if not years of lead time — plenty of time to evacuate.

    …which for a small enough impacter ought to mean enough lead time to make it miss altogether. I think if we have enough time to decide where it hits we either have enough time to make it miss, or to kiss all our asses goodbye.

  28. If it’s Chicxulub-grade we’d barely notice Yellowstone going off because of it.

    It’s worth noting that the Columbia River Basalt Floods (which are thought to have been caused by the Yellowstone hotspot, directly or indirectly) were similar in volume to the estimated amount of rock that was ejected, vaporized, or melted by the Chicxulub impact. It’s possible that a direct impact by a Chicxulub-grade asteroid might not only release the energy from the current magma underlying Yellowstone, but also the much larger pool of magma that forms the top of the hot spot, perhaps in a matter of seconds.

    This wouldn’t be just Yellowstone caldera going off, but all the possible Yellowstones to some point, perhaps a very distant point, in the future. It might still be insignificant due to the vast energy of a Chicxulub-grade impact, but I bet it’d be a noticeable worsening of the situation.

  29. I bet it’d be a noticeable worsening of the situation.

    From orbit, I suppose. At ground level I think most people would be a trifle distracted. 😉

  30. Fletcher Christian,

    If I recall that is one of the theories on The Permian–Triassic extinction event. A NEO hit a caldera and created the Siberian Traps…

  31. I’ve been looking into this a bit. Apparently, it is somewhat likely that the Chixculub event set off the Deccan Traps flood eruption; the area was antipodal, roughly, to Yucatan at the time. This was probably caused by converging earthquake waves, in a similar way to the “chaotic terrain” on the other side of Mercury’s Caloris Basin.

    In a similar way, if the USA and the world are unlucky enough, an impact in the southern Indian Ocean might well set off Yellowstone.

    All of which reinforces the basic point: WE NEED TO GET OFF THIS MUDBALL!

  32. As with most things, timing would seem to matter. If Fletch’s Big Rock (FuBaR) shows up any time in the next 50 years, it’ll hit where it’s headed, as I seriously doubt the capability to influence it’s trajectory will exist before then. If FuBaR shows up later than this and headed for the Pacific, but with the possibility of steering it just enough to hit the continental U.S., then it’s likely it could, alternatively, be steered onto the Asian continent. The Chinese, I presume, would not be pleased if we Yanks sought to arrange things thus.

    If the default impact point is in the Atlantic, the alternative strike points are then in North America and Europe. Projecting current demographics, the population of North America is likely to be 600 – 800 million a century hence while Europe, including Russia, is likely to be at or below a quarter of that. Europe, having already firmly embarked on a trip down the road to extinction in our present day, will be well along that path a century hence and will long since have arrived two centuries hence. If FuBaR shows up between 50 and 150 or so years from now, steering it into Europe will simply supply a quick completion to a process already well underway.

    If FuBaR arrives much beyond two centuries hence, however, the U.S. vs. Europe question is likely to be moot as we Yanks will have long since reverse colonized the erstwhile Old Countries and it will be American territory whichever side of the Atlantic is bent over the barrel. I am, however, confident the transatlantic U.S.A. of the 23rd Century will long since have cataloged all the loose rocks out to at least 60 AU and will be both willing and able to rope and hog-tie any mavericks large enough to be dangerous before they get anywhere near dear old Terra.

  33. A really big rock hitting the Moon might be quite dangerous, too; a fair proportion of the ejecta might well end up entering Earth’s atmosphere at escape velocity or better.

    And if we are really unlucky, the rock might be unannounced (quite likely) and arrive at a time of serious international tension (ditto) and choose a city in one of the potential belligerents as a target. What would have happened if during the Able Archer crisis, Vladivostok or Kansas City had been vapourised by a meteorite? (Choosing important but not absolutely vital cities – Leningrad or New York City…)

  34. Mr. Eagleson, I very much doubt that the USA will even exist in the 23rd century, or that it will matter much if it does. Either humanity gets out there in serious numbers (most of whom will be born out there) and the space dwellers will be dominant in human politics – or we will have run out of just about everything and the few of us who are left won’t be able to keep a country the size of the USA going. i dismiss as a pipedream the very idea of sensible energy policies such as going all out for CO2-free power like OTEC and nukes. That would work, but it ain’t gonna happen.

    I feel sorry for my niece and nephew. I’ll be gone by the time the brown stuff hits the spinning thing, but they will have to deal with the consequences of our current leaders’ stupidity, greed and arrogance.

  35. they will have to deal with the consequences of our current leaders’ stupidity, greed and arrogance.

    They are NOT your leaders. They are your representatives – they work for you, not the other way around, and you can fire them. Don’t let them forget it either.

  36. Well said, Ed. Unfortunately a great number of people who shouldn’t have a vote do, and just about all of the people who actually want political jobs are incompetent to perform them when they get them – largely because they are drawn from the ranks of “professions” (law, accountancy and PR) that are sufficiently overpaid to be able to take time out for politicking.

    For example, AFAIK precisely one of the people who got into high office in my country (UK) over the last 50 years has been qualified in a hard science subject – in this case chemistry, and it was Margaret Thatcher. Our best leader since Churchill, and she was backstabbed by the upper-class twits who constitute most of the upper echelons of the Conservative Party.

    In the USA, you have a crypto-Muslim socialist with an entirely political background as President and a crooked lawyer as backup. Your compatriots voted him in.

Comments are closed.