Brian May Is the Champion of the Universe

12-3-14 Asteroid Day
The passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the Earth-moon system, is depicted in this handout image from NASA. On February 15, 2013, an asteroid, 150 feet (45 meters) in diameter will pass close, but safely, by Earth. The flyby creates a unique opportunity for researchers to observe and learn more about asteroids. JPL-Caltech/NASA/Reuters

The guitarist, songwriter and founding member of British rock band Queen is also an astrophysicist. On Wednesday, Brian May joined scientists and astronauts in a joint press conference in San Francisco and London to present the 100x Asteroid Declaration and to announce Asteroid Day. The former calls for an acceleration of the detection and monitoring of near-Earth asteroids, while the latter will take place on June 30, 2015, to raise awareness for planetary defense.

The declaration's signatories—who number more than 100 and include scientists, business leaders and artists from around the globe—strive "to raise awareness about protecting and preserving life on our planet by preventing future asteroid impacts."

"There are probably a million objects out there that could wipe out a city," said May, speaking from the London Science Museum alongside Lord Martin Rees, a cosmologist and astrophysicist who has been the United Kingdom's astronomer royal since 1995. Of those million objects, we've tracked perhaps 1 percent, May said.

His estimate is optimistic compared with that of Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creator of the Torino Scale, a measure of the impact hazard of objects like asteroids and comets. He said we've identified only a fraction of a percent of the objects that could inflict ground damage. Binzel is not affiliated with the declaration or Asteroid Day.

Either way, the vast majority of asteroids have yet to be discovered or monitored. "We have a huge bridge to cross...to make the necessary preparations to save the entire planet from a possibly very big disaster," said May, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and wrote the theme for the 1980 sci-fi movie Flash Gordon.

The declaration released Wednesday outlines three main tenets:

1. Employ available technology to detect and track Near-Earth Asteroids that threaten human populations via governments and private and philanthropic organisations.

2. A rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.

3. Global adoption of Asteroid Day, heightening awareness of the asteroid hazard and our efforts to prevent impacts, on June 30, 2015.

According to Binzel, there is a broad consensus that a survey to map and track near-Earth asteroids is necessary. In the U.S., the National Academies have released multiple reports to support an asteroid survey, and in 2005 Congress passed the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, which says NASA should "detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter in order to assess the threat of such near-Earth objects to the Earth."

But to date, Binzel said, no entity anywhere in the world has taken the lead to spearhead such a project on a large scale.

"Neither NASA nor Congress has stepped up to their adult responsibility to conduct a survey," Binzel said. The two bodies are knocking heads over funding for it.

"Adult responsibility means taking the long view of what the hazards are, and the asteroid hazard issue is definitely one that requires the long view," he said. "[The] risk is something best measured over a century time scale, and congressional terms are two years each."

Binzel predicted such a project would take five to 10 years to complete and cost roughly $200 million per year. Though he estimates an asteroid is likely to land on Earth only about once in a century, he said the project would mitigate those long-term risks. "It's like buying insurance: You can have fire insurance on your house, [and] even though the chances you'll need it are low, it's a sensible thing to have," he said. "I think investing in a survey from a hazard point of view is like having a good insurance policy."

Rees agreed, saying that "people shouldn't be scared" and noting that asteroid impacts are not common. But "it's worth a few hundred million a year to reduce risk," he said, invoking the same insurance metaphor as Binzel.

The point of Wednesday's announcement was not to push any one particular project, said Ed Lu—an astronaut who has traveled on three missions to the International Space Station—at the press conference, but rather to raise awareness and encourage the discovery of asteroids in any way possible.

"We want to see the job done. We don't care who does it," said Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut. Lu and Schweikart, both astronauts and engineers, co-founded the B612 Foundation as part of their mission to stop asteroids from striking Earth. "What we're interested in is assuming responsibility today for the future of life here on Earth," Schweikert said.

To continue raising public awareness of the danger of uncharted asteroids, Asteroid Day will take place on June 30, which coincides with the anniversary of the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908, when the impact of an asteroid burned roughly 800 square miles of land. It will be marked with regionally organized events, according to the Asteroid Day website, such as live concerts, community events, lectures, educational programs and more, to bolster support for a movement to increase detection and tracking of asteroids.

"We have the technology to deflect dangerous asteroids through kinetic impactors and gravity tractors, but only if we have years of advance warning of their trajectories," Lu said in the Asteroid Day press release. "Now we need the resolve to go forward. It is the only natural disaster we know how to prevent."