Skip to comments.Asteroid Impact Could Have Triggered India-Pakistan Nuclear War, General Says
Posted on 09/18/2002 7:40:56 AM PDT by cogitator
Near-Earth Objects Pose Threat, General Says
Washington - Sep 17, 2002 This summer, much of the world watched as India and Pakistan faced-off over the disputed Kashmir region, worried that the showdown could escalate into a nuclear war.
Coincidentally, U.S. early warning satellites detected an explosion in the Earth's atmosphere June 6, at the height of the tension, with an energy release estimated to be 12 kilotons.
Fortunately the detonation, equivalent to the blast that destroyed Hiroshima, occurred over the Mediterranean Sea.
However, if it had occurred at the same latitude a few hours earlier, the result on human affairs might have been much worse, said Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden, U.S. Space Command's deputy director for operations at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Had the bright flash, accompanied by a damaging shock wave, occurred over India or Pakistan, the resulting panic could have sparked a nuclear war, Worden recently told members of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Future of the U. S. Aerospace Industry in testimony here.
Although U.S. officials quickly determined that a meteor caused the explosion, neither India nor Pakistan have the sophisticated sensors that can determine the difference between a natural near-Earth object impact and a nuclear detonation, Worden said in written testimony.
This is one of many threats posed by NEOs, especially as more and more nations acquire nuclear weapons, said Worden, who appeared before the commission as a scientist who has studied NEOs and as a space expert familiar with the technologies that can be used to address the NEO threat.
In recent years, the Department of Defense has been working to provide data about asteroid strikes to nations potentially under missile attack and to the scientific community; however, it takes several weeks for the data to be released since much of it is gathered from classified systems.
Worden suggested that a NEO warning center be established that can assess and release this data as soon as possible to all interested parties while ensuring sensitive data is safeguarded.
He recommended to the commission that a natural impact warning clearinghouse could be formed by adding no more than 10 people to current U.S. Space Command early warning centers.
This organization would catalog and provide credible warning information on future NEO impact problems, as well as rapidly provide information on the nature of an impact.
In order for this clearinghouse to provide accurate information, NEOs must first be detected, cataloged and their orbits defined.
Current ground-based systems are already cataloging large kilometer-sized objects but have a difficult time finding smaller NEOs. Most sail by the earth unnoticed until they have passed, he said.
"Just about everyone knows of the 'dinosaur killer' asteroids," Worden said. "These are objects, a few kilometers across, that strike on time scales of tens of millions of years. While the prospect of such strikes grabs people's attention and makes great catastrophe movies, too much focus on these events has been counterproductive. We need to focus our energies on the smaller, more immediate threats."
The smaller strikes, while not exactly commonplace, have occurred on several occasions over the past century, with potentially devastating results, he said.
"An object probably less than 100 meters in diameter struck Tunguska in Siberia in 1908, releasing the energy equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear blast," Worden said. "In 1996, our satellite sensors detected a burst over Greenland equal to a 100-kiloton yield. Had any of these struck over a populated area, perhaps hundreds of thousands might have perished."
An even worse catastrophe would be an ocean impact near a heavily populated shore by one of these Tunguska-sized objects.
"The resulting tidal wave could inundate shorelines for hundreds of miles and potentially kill millions," Worden explained.
"There are hundreds of thousands of objects this size that come near the Earth," he said. "We know the orbits of just a few. New space-surveillance systems capable of scanning the entire sky every few days are needed. They could enable us to completely catalog and warn of objects (less than 100 meters in diameter)."
According to Worden, this does not mean other groups, in particular the international scientific community, should not continue their independent efforts. But the United States is likely, for the foreseeable future, to have most of the required sensors to do this job. He added that DOD has the discipline and continuity to ensure consistent, long-term focus.
"I believe various aspects related to NEO impacts, including the possibility that an impact would be misidentified as a nuclear attack, are critical national and international security issues," he said. "The focus of NEO mitigation efforts should shift to smaller objects. The near-term threats are much more likely to come from these 'small' objects, and we might be able to divert such objects without (resorting) to nuclear devices."
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 established the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. The commission was formed to study the future of the U.S. aerospace industry in the global economy, particularly in relationship to national security, and provide recommendations to the president and Congress.
The article doesn't mention that President Reagan was once roused from a sound sleep because satellites detected a detonation over the Indian Ocean that also turned out to be due to an incoming asteroid or comet.
Your extrapolation does not fit the available data.
It's very important to understand one thing about this article: Pete Worden is a crank who is fascinated by gee-whiz stuff, and whose dedication to career advancement is matched only by his legendary bad manners, odd mannerisms, and knack for over-stepping his bounds.
His scenario sounds bad, but if you really think about it he's had to make a whole lot of assumptions about who would do what and why.
Given Pete's history, the key to the whole article is this: Worden suggested that a NEO warning center be established that can assess and release this data as soon as possible to all interested parties while ensuring sensitive data is safeguarded.
One can guess that Gen. Worden would be jockeying to head just such a center, as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal of heading up "planetary defense."
This is interesting. I saw photographs of the Tunguska event and if you look at the way the trees were felled and the blast radius it is easy to assume (if you did not take note of the date of the occurence and the fact no one had anything close to atomic bombs then) that is was a nuclear explosion. The photography showed in essence a similar blast pattern that a nuke would have caused. Actually if my memory serves me correctly for many years some people said it was an 'explosion as anti-matter from space collided with matter' since few believed back then it was caused by a meteorite! (I always chuckle over the anti-matter explanation though ......anti-protons and positive electrons have only been created in extremely controlled scenarios hence a 'mass' of anti-matter impacting Earth is a little ludicrous).
Anyways this whole Asteroid/Meteorite thing is a greater threat than most people think since over 90% of the space surrounding Earth is not scrutinized at all. And most big chunks (like the one that passed close to Earth a couple of months ago) are discovered when it is feasibly too late!
Imagine what would have happened had a Tunguska-type space rock impacted Boston during the height of the Cold war, or if a ferrite meteorite had exploded 1 mile above Moscow, USSR in 1981! I am almost certain that the fallout would have been a nuclear strike (and the Red Line phone connection between Moscow and Washington would not have helped if such an event occured). After think how close the world came to nuclear conflagration during the late seventies and eighties due to silly stuff like cloud formation accumulations over Alaska (and a couple of years ago Russian subs went into threat alert when a metereological rocket launched by Norway was not reported to all the military echelons and was misinterpreted as an SLBM Trident launch from a US submarine. Reports say that a nuclear launch count-down had begun and was only stopped with a minute left, just like the movies! And the sad thing is Norway had reported they would launch the rocket months in advance, but that notice did not reach everyone).
And, switching sides, there is this Russian Rocket Soldier who worked for the Soviet Rocket Forces Department who still receives cards and thank you letters from grateful people since he single handedly stopped a nuclear war. Their radar had picked up some anomaly (i guess the usual cloud formation) and the Ruskies had prepared for a launch. It is only this guy who disobeyed orders and managed to stall the launch for enough minutes for additional info to come through and prove it was not ICBMs over Alaska but something else. The order had already been given to launch.
I saw some info that the US also made several such mistakes as well. It seems God must have seriously been watching over Earth because according to probability a nuclear war should have broken out during the cold war. But nothing happened!
Now imagine if a meteorite aerial burst over New Delhi or Mumbai in India or Karachi or Islamabad in Pakistan occured! I can bet serious cash that depending on the spot volatility between the two nations (which by the way is always high) there would be a launch between the two nations.
I read somewhere that 10 million dollars would be enough to ensure that all the space is looked at ....yet no one has agreed to cough up the funds. I may be wrong, but 10 million dollars is nothing for government, and if it would give prior warning on a meteorite strike (even if after the warning there is little we can do to stop it .....without heading into silly science fiction) it would at least ensure silly Arabs and jittery Hindus with nuclear weapons will not act stupidly thinking the other is employing a first strike!
If 10 million bucks can at least lessen the chances of that i think it is a good investment. I do not understand what is so hard in getting 10 million bucks for this ....it is one of the things i do not comprehend!
And at the same time, billions are being spent on the Space Station for little return (see related thread in Front Page News).