Governments and space agencies seeking to protect the Earth by changing the courses of potentially hazardous asteroids might face major legal hurdles, even if our planet is in the crosshairs of a bolide big enough to kill millions, experts say.
One problem is what would happen if one country, worried about protecting its own citizens, attempted to deflect the asteroid, screwed up, and accidentally dumped it on a neighbour.
Space law, says David Koplow of Georgetown University Law Centre, Washington DC, is based on the principle of strict liability.
“The concept is that space activities are hazardous and therefore the harm should not fall on an innocent bystander,” Koplow says.
Another problem stems from the fact that only a few countries have the technological ability to deflect an incoming asteroid, and there is, at present, no international authority tasked with making sure everyone else is represented in the decision-making process.
In fact, says Cordula Steinkogler, a space law expert at the University of Vienna, Austria, current treaties don’t even require nations to share information about such hazards, let alone act to protect each other.
She notes, however, that the United Nations charter does establish a “very general” duty for them to act toward solving international problems that affect economic, social, cultural, educational, and health wellbeing.
Failure to share information can be more than just an inconvenience.
To start with, says Petr Boháček, of Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic, it could make countries wonder if, instead of international cooperation, the rule is actually everyone for themselves.
It’s a particularly important problem, he says, because the nations at risk of being hit by an asteroid may not be the ones with the greatest geopolitical power. “Asteroids do not discriminate,” he notes.
The nation-state concept of sovereignty, he adds, dates back several hundred years.
“I’m not sure how many concepts from the seventeenth century you use in your decision-making,” he says, “but making decisions for planetary defence based on this dinosaur method of decision-making may not be the best choice.”
Another problem is that the nation hit by an asteroid might see it as an attack by a foe, and retaliate.
“[It] could look like the damage of a nuclear attack,” says Seth Baum, executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a US-based think tank, “so the prospect [of] a counterattack seems like something worth taking very seriously.”
Ironically, the risk of this is probably inversely proportional to the size of asteroid.
A big asteroid, capable of wiping out an enormous swath of territory, would be seen coming well in advance, and have generated a media frenzy (assuming people didn’t brand it as “fake news”).
Smaller ones, like the one that in 2013 exploded high above Chelyabinsk, Russia, with the force of a about 470 kilotonnes of TNT, are hard to predict.
To the extent we can see something like that coming in, Baum says, it would be good to alert militaries around the world of its approach, just to make sure they don’t mistake it for a nuclear attack.
But the biggest worry is about the use of nuclear weapons against an incoming asteroid.
At the moment, there are several methods for diverting a bolide from its collision course, if it is spotted far enough in advance.
One is to hit it with a fast-moving rocket, just hard enough to nudge it into missing us.
But it’s also possible to divert it by exploding a nuclear device close to its surface. In fact, with a big enough bomb, it should be possible to reduce the asteroid to a spreading cloud of rubble, most, if not all, of which should miss the planet, with the rest burning up harmlessly in the upper atmosphere.
There’s just one problem: under the terms of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the use of nuclear devices is flatly prohibited. And while it might be possible to amend the treaty (or get the UN Security Council to override it in the event of an emergency) that is by no means a gimme.
In part, says Koplow, the prohibition against using nuclear devices in space is based on the desire to prevent a nuclear arms race above the atmosphere, and the concern that carving out an exception might open the floodgates for military deployments.
But there is also a potential effect on efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
“Simply put,” Baum says, “nuclear deflection is incompatible with the policy goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”
“And”, Boháček adds, “the non-proliferation regime is based on the assumption that you do not need nuclear weapons for national survival.”
If one country used them to divert an asteroid, he says, that “would send a signal that they are necessary”.
Also relevant, Baum says, is the “nuclear taboo” – an “informal but nonetheless very powerful” stigma against using nuclear devices for any purpose, even peaceful ones.
Not only could the use of a nuclear device to deflect an incoming transgress this constraint, he says, but “even the discussion of potentially using it could weaken the taboo a little bit. There is no easy way around this.”
Richard A Lovett
Richard A. Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. He is a frequent contributor to COSMOS.
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