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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A Cautionary Tale

By Phil Plait

Take a moment and indulge me. I want you to imagine a scenario.

Astronomers mapping the sky find a moving object, incredibly faint, in their data. It’s moving slowly, so it’s very far away and probably small. Their best guess is that it’s an asteroid about a kilometer across.

Because it’s faint and relatively far away, they can only get a very rough estimate of its orbit. It appears to be on a trajectory that brings it into the inner solar system, but it’s not possible to reliably say more than that.

A report is made, some other scientists try observing it, but for many the signal from it is just too hard to make out. Every now and again, someone follows up to see if they can refine its orbit. When they can spot it the orbit gets refined a bit better, but it’s still rough. Calculations show it getting no closer to the Sun than Mars, but with a wide margin of error. A handful of papers are published arguing over the shape of the orbit.

Some news venues report about it, most getting the basic science wrong. Around the same time new observations begin to show the asteroid will cross Earth’s orbit, some media report that the asteroid will miss us by a comfortable distance.

Over the years the asteroid comes closer. It’s still faint, and difficult to tease out of the background noise in images, but it’s getting clearer. More astronomers get involved, keeping an eye on it. New observations show it will definitely cross the Earth’s orbit, but it’s not sure when. Some say the Earth will be on the other side of the Sun, others say it could be a closer encounter.

A few more years pass — the solar system is big, and travel times large — and more observations are made. The projected path of the asteroid intersects the projected location of the Earth, but the statistical nature of the projection makes it hard to know how close it will get. Still, a handful of scientists are worried, and start making public statements that we need to take the idea of an impact seriously.

Some people ridicule those scientists. “Astronomers can’t even find 95% of the Universe,” proclaims a talking head on Vulpecula News, “and they cover up their ignorance by calling it ‘dark matter’. How dumb do they think we are? Who knows if this object even exists?”

Even as more astronomers observe the object and become more concerned as the chance of an impact creeps upward, newspaper OpEds are written claiming the science of asteroid orbital prediction isn’t settled. A Senator stands on the floor of the Capitol holding a rock in his hand, saying, “This is from my garden. I use it for landscaping. How can it possibly do any damage to us?”

NASA becomes more focused on this asteroid when the probability of an impact passes 10%. During budget negotiations, they ask for an increase in the Space Science budget to look into diverting this (or any future) asteroid. The Congressional majority party cuts Space Science instead, saying NASA should pay more attention to taking pretty pictures of the sky instead of wasting taxpayer money on Chicken Little stories.

More observations, more refinements. A few years later, the raw probability of an impact is at 75%. Most scientists are now extremely worried, and a general consensus is that the threat is real, and that we must take action now to prevent an impact. Every day we wait makes it that much harder to deflect it. It’s like crossing a street; if a car is far away you have plenty of time to cross and you can saunter. But if a car is much closer, you have to run, and even then it’s very dangerous.

Eventually the public catches on, and polls show an ever-increasing percentage of the American population wants to take action, but their Representatives in Congress refuse to act. Many politicians still ridicule astronomers. The governor of Florida makes it an unwritten rule that no one in their administration can use the word “asteroid” when talking to the media, and politicians in Wisconsin even forbid government workers from discussing the issue in public.

The probability of impact keeps going up, and nears certainty. A study of astronomers shows that an overwhelming majority of them, 97%, agree that an impact is inevitable. However, the size of the asteroid still isn’t known. If it’s a few hundred meters across, it may only damage certain regions directly, but still have worldwide consequences over time, especially financially. If it’s a kilometer across the catastrophic damage will be global.

More OpEds are written, playing up the fact that astronomers aren’t sure of the size of the asteroid, but ignoring the fact that it will definitely hit. A handful are written by scientists, some with decidedly odd funding sources. They are a tiny minority of the total number of asteroid scientists, but they seem to be the ones the media (and Congressional hearings) turn to over and again, giving their doubt a much larger soapbox than deserved.

One scientist, part of the consensus and a leader in the field, has been raising the alarm for years, but has been roundly and viciously attacked by various “think tanks”. The Attorney General from his University’s home state even subpoenaed all his work, trying to prove he was lying about the impact, claiming he’s just trying to secure more grant money. The scientist is vindicated over and again, but the AG keeps pounding away anyway, wasting taxpayer money while claiming to be parsimonious.

Eventually the asteroid is bright enough that it can be seen in small telescopes. Anyone can see it themself with just a little bit of understanding of how the science works. NASA still tries to get money from Congress, but is slapped down. One Congressman denies asteroids can even exist at all, since they’re not mentioned in the Bible. Another, with heavy ties to the mining industry, claims that an impact would be beneficial, since it would bring a huge amount of precious metals to Earth, right on the ground where we can access them.

Finally, several decades after its discovery, the asteroid is naked eye visible. Every human being who is capable can stand outside and see it for themself. Astronomers measure the asteroid’s size at two kilometers across, but it’s now too close to push out of the way, and most mitigation techniques — which only exist on paper anyway — were unfunded and unexplored, and any that might still be useful are now too dangerous to try.

No person on Earth is unaffected by this news. Even before the physical impact, the effects of the asteroid on humanity are felt everywhere; there’s hoarding, people fleeing the coasts, refugees, economic collapse. But there’s no place on the planet to hide from it. Even then, some die-hards still deny it’s a problem, but they hardly matter now; their work is done. It’s too late. It has been for years.

Decades of science denial, industry influence, and partisan bickering have led to paralyzing inaction. The Earth is in the crosshairs, and we were too busy arguing over whether the problem even exists to do anything about it.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? There’s no way something like this could happen, right?

Funny. To me, this sounds exactly like the climate we live in.

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