International asteroid warnings: standing up a system?


I’ve posted a report (see left menu) on the results of a recent workshop held to tackle challenges in communicating about near-Earth object (NEO) hazards and NEO impact mitigation.

I was co-organizer and co-facilitator of the workshop and co-author of the workshop report, along with Laura Delgado Lopez of Secure World Foundation (SWF). SWF hosted this workshop, which was organized at the request and for the benefit of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), an international group of organizations involved in detecting, tracking, and characterizing NEOs. IAWN was organized in response to a United Nations (UN) recommendation and operates independently of the UN.

Our workshop, held in September in Colorado, brought together a diverse group of experts from the NEO science, risk communication, policy, and emergency management communities to provide communication guidance and advice to managers and directors of IAWN member programs and institutions, including NASA and the European Space Agency. (I am a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program on communication issues.)

One interesting recommendation that came out of the workshop is a proposal for a new, non-probabilistic scale for characterizing asteroid impact hazards and impact effects – that is, an impact effects scale.

Even if the NEO community chooses to adopt some sort of impact effects scale, it will still, IMHO, need to work on a better way of characterizing impact probabilities and risks. Many members of this community have come to understand that their Torino and Palermo scales, developed for use among experts, are not especially effective in communicating with non-expert audiences. A major challenge in communicating with non-experts about probabilistic risk assessments is that non-experts may not be cognizant of all the uncertainty surrounding these assessments.

The workshop report has been distributed to members of the IAWN Steering Committee. The Committee has not yet reviewed the report and thus has not yet endorsed or adopted any of the recommendations that came out of the workshop. (See p. 3 of the report for the recommendations.)

Stay tuned.

“Preparing for Discovery”: now on your computer screen


Credit: Library of Congress

For all you curious people who missed it and would like to tune in, the webcast of “Preparing For Discovery,” the Kluge Center/Library of Congress symposium on how we might prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life is now archived here.

I posted a preview of the symposium last month.

My talk – “The allure of alien life: from microbes to intelligent life” – is last on the agenda at the link above. (If you listen to it, let me know what you think, yes?) If you want to view my slides or read my full paper, look to the left (”pages”) for a link to them.

I addressed the modern history of public conceptions and perceptions of extraterrestrial life and speculated on how people might respond to the discovery of it. I talked about how pop-culture depictions of “aliens” are not about extraterrestrial life – they’re about us. I talked about the Western-white-male-centric thinking that “otherizes” people who are not like “us” – including fictional intelligent aliens (who are almost always “bad”). And I critiqued what I view as the ideology of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

I attended the symposium in its entirety and found it stimulating and thought-provoking. While all talks were interesting, I’ll mention just a few.

Planetary scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch gave a fascinating talk about the striking diversity of life on Earth, speculating about the sorts of life that might be able to thrive in some extreme extraterrestrial environments, such as his favorite, Saturn’s moon Titan. (His slide show was terrific, check it out.)

Neuroscientist Lori Marino addressed “the landscape of intelligence,” arguing that the current approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – that is, attempting to detect evidence of technology (mainly radio waves) – rests on flawed assumptions. As to what intelligence is, its boundaries are fuzzy, there are no consensus descriptions, and “it doesn’t fit into any theoretical framework.” SETI assumes that human intelligence is the only intelligence we know. And this assumption depends on more assumptions – that human intelligence is unique and that humans are superior to other species.

In a talk entitled “Equating culture, civilization, and moral development in imagining ETI,” anthropologist John Traphagan explained how what we can imagine depends on what we think we know. Our assumptions, beliefs, values, and experiences shape our imaginings. “We” (Western white people) tend to assume that “civilization” —m and definitions of this term are vague – inevitably leads to cultural and moral progress. “There’s little evidence that cultural evolution involves moral progress…. Moral values are cultural products…and they vary dramatically from one culture to another.”

For the record, Traphagan and I were not the only speakers on the agenda who critiqued the Western-white-male-centric thinking that underlies the search for extraterrestrial intelligence…. (It’s the same sort of thinking that underlies rationales for the human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of space, and I continue to be baffled by the Obama administration’s embrace of this old-school ideology.)

The Kluge symposium was organized by Steve Dick, the second Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology (2013-2014). The first Blumberg Chair was David Grinspoon (2012-2013). (I blogged about David’s Kluge symposium last year.) NASA and Kluge did not select anyone to fill the chair for the coming year (2014-2015). Instead, the Kluge Center intends to organize a series of dialogues on astrobiology. We can assume that some sort of announcement will be forthcoming….

Disturbing visions of our future in space


Last week I heard a conversation between a weirdly odd couple about space exploration.

At a meeting in Washington on October 2, science fiction author Neal Stephenson and NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan shared the stage to talk about their views about the human future in space.

This meeting, “Can We Imagine Our Way to a Better Future?”, was one in a series of “Future Tense” events sponsored by the New America Foundation in partnership with Arizona State University and Slate magazine. The October 2 event was organized around science fiction stories published in a new collection, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (HarperCollins, 2014). Neal Stephenson wrote the book’s preface, titled “Innovation Starvation.”

(I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe “we” are starved of innovation. I believe we’re short of the cash required to realize useful visions of change. I also believe that all too often “innovation” means “more” – more resource depletion, more profits for industry, more junk in our garbage dumps….)

The topic of the Stephenson-Stofan dialogue was “Lost in space: how should we approach our future frontier?” (I must note that on the printed agenda, the “frontier” was “final” – on the projection screen, “final” had mutated to “future.”)

“I grew up following the space program as “a heroic quest,” Stephenson began. “There’s a whole generation of bitterly disappointed people from the ‘60s” who haven’t gotten the space colonies and missions to Mars, the goals they dreamed of, he said. “I’m still stuck on the Elon-Musk-style heroic space [effort]. It’s almost an adolescent impulse.” The “inherent destiny” of humankind to expand its presence into space is all the justification I need for a bigger, better space exploration program, he declared. When moderator Patric Verrone (the very funny writer and producer of the very funny TV series “Futurama”) asked whether manifest destiny is enough to justify space exploration, Stephenson said it is.

Stofan said it’s not – “there is scientific justification” as well. Stofan disagreed with the idea that the U.S. space program is “lost in space” without a goal, offering up the James Webb Space Telescope – “unbelievably cool” – and the search for life on Mars. “At NASA we’re feeling like we have a clear goal.”

As for better methods of space propulsion – a major roadblock to more affordable space flight – Stephenson reported that after spending some time trying to come up better alternatives to chemical propulsion, he decided that “it’s almost a waste of time” because so many smart people have been working on the problem for so long, with no results. Stofan responded that NASA’s now investing a lot of effort in developing solar electric propulsion, and she also mentioned the option of nuclear thermal propulsion.

“We as a civilization do great, cool things,” Stofan observed. I can watch astronauts on the International Space Station on my phone, she said – “how cool is that?” She also noted that NASA’s “entering into a new realm,” partnering with the private sector. Someone in the audience commented that commercial interests are not the same as public interests. (Hear, hear.)

Also at this meeting, Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology, touted Elon Musk as a role model for innovation. He also touted a paper authored by NASA employees and published last year as “a phenomenally inspiring long-term vision” for the U.S. space program.

Entitled “Affordable, rapid bootstrapping of the space industry and solar system civilization,” this paper (published in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering 26(1), 2013) argues that:

“Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost. Simple modeling was developed to identify the main parameters of successful bootstrapping. This indicates that bootstrapping can be achieved with as little as 12 t landed on the Moon during a period of about 20 years…. The industry grows exponentially because of the free real estate, energy, and material resources of space. The mass of industrial assets at the end of bootstrapping will be 156 t with 60 humanoid robots or as high as 40,000 t with as many as 100,000 humanoid robots if faster manufacturing is supported by launching a total of 41 t to the Moon. Modeling over wide parameter ranges indicates this is reasonable, but further analysis is needed. This industry promises to revolutionize the human condition.”

Indeed, further analysis is needed.

Such developments certainly would “revolutionize the human condition” – but how? What legal and ethical issues must be faced in considering, let alone pursuing, such developments.

The idea that this administration is seriously considering these sorts of wild-eyed visions of exploitation is deeply disturbing.


The allure of alien life: a preview



I’ll be giving a talk on “the allure of alien life” at a symposium at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress tomorrow. For more information, go to:

(See the page on this site, “The Allure of Alien Life,” for my paper and my slides.)

Today, the first day of this symposium, we heard a vigorous critique of the anthropocentric/ethnocentric/Western-White-Male-centric thinking that dominates the popular and scholarly discourse about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and speculations about “first contact.”

I guarantee you’ll hear more tomorrow. Tune in. The symposium is being webcast at:

If you miss the live event, the Kluge Center eventually will archive a video recording of the symposium.

The NASA IG’s NEO report: a corrective



NASA’s Office of Inspector General has published its audit of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program. The audit found that the program is tasked with doing too much with too little. ABC, CBS, and NBC made news of this finding as follows: “NASA Inspector Blasts Asteroid Protection Program” (ABC) “NASA Inspector General blasts asteroid detection program” (CBS) “NASA’s watchdog office criticizes NASA’s asteroid-hunting program” (NBC) In my humble opinion, these stories (and the others that copied and followed) are a tad misleading. Here’s what the IG’s report says:

  • “Existing NEO program management [is] not commensurate with increased resources and expanded responsibilities.” (p. 9).
  • “NASA has placed overall Program responsibility in a single Program Executive at Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight.” (p. 10)
  • In addition to managing NASA-funded NEO detection, tracking, characterization, and mitigation efforts, “the Program supports the work of NASA initiatives such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and NEO Program personnel provide technical support for a Space Act agreement with the B612 Foundation to assist in the development of a privately funded, space-based infrared telescope. Despite this increased activity, NASA has not changed or improved the NEO Program’s management structure, and the Program has not established a plan to integrate the additional initiatives or track their contributions to attainment of NEO Program goals” (p. iii).

The NEO program’s budget has increased from $4 million in 2010 to $40 million this year. As the IG’s report notes, when the program budget was $20 million it was managed by one civil servant. Now that the program budget is $40 million, it is still managed by one civil servant (the same one). (See above.) I am a consultant to the NEO Observation Program on communication issues. I am not, and cannot be, involved in program management. I am not privy to any inside information on the status of the program. But it seems to me that the central message from the IG is not that the program “lacks structure” but that it lacks the resources needed to organize and operate as a well structured NASA program. That’s my biased five cents worth.

Update: Nicaragua impact: meteorite, or not? JPL weighs in


Credit: Nicaraguan Army/Associated Press

On Sunday September 7, Nicaraguan media reported that a meteorite had crashed to Earth near the Managua airport around 11 PM local time Saturday September 6. The impact made a crater 12 meters in diameter and 5.5 meters deep, according to La Nacion (ACAN-EFE). Associated Press and Reuters reported on the event, and those reports were widely distributed via other media channels. 

Media reports quoted a Nicaraguan spokesperson stating that 1) the crater was caused by a metorite impact and 2) the meteorite was a fragment of the asteroid 2014 RC, which NEO observers reported last week would safely fly by Earth on Sunday September 7.

My (knowledgeable) sources say that since the Nicaraguan impact occurred 13 hours before the fly-by of 2014 RC, the object that caused the impact could not have been a fragment of 2014 RC. 

My sources also have not yet determined whether the impact was caused by a meteorite of by something else. Stay tuned for more information from the experts on what caused this impact. 

La Nacion noted in its report that the impact occurred near a military installation, as well as the airport. One media report quoted an eyewitness – actually an ear-witness – who said he was sitting on his porch at the time of the impact and saw nothing but heard the explosion. That seems odd, since the impact occurred at night.

We don’t have the advantage of hundreds of automobile dashboard cameras recording this impact event, as we did with the Chelyabinsk impact of 2013. I haven’t seen any close-ups of the impact crater, which would be helpful to experts interested in determining what created it.

So, again, stay tuned for more definitive reports on what caused this impact. 

UPDATE: SEE – JPL’s NEO Program Office reports, “Reports in the media over the weekend that a small meteorite impacted in Nicaragua have yet to be confirmed. A loud explosion was heard near Managua’s international airport Saturday night, and photos of a 24-meter (80-foot) crater have been circulated. As yet, no eyewitness accounts or imagery have come to light of the fireball flash or debris trail that is typically associated with a meteor of the size required to produce such a crater. Since the explosion in Nicaragua occurred a full 13 hours before the close passage of asteroid 2014 RC, these two events are unrelated.”

“Hot alien chicks”: this is “Science”?



In doing research (really) for a paper that I’m writing, I stumbled across a misbegotten bit of infotainment on the Web site of the Science Channel that I feel I must call out. At the risk of drawing attention to content we all should ignore, here goes.

On its “aliens & space” page, the Science Channel offers us a list of “top 10 hot alien chicks.”

Hot? Chicks? (Really, “chicks”? Jeeze.) Science?

Again, with no intent to draw attention to this schlock, I highlight it to critique the piggish back-to-the-’60s attitude reflected in the content, which is freely available to all who can read (including, presumably, fourth graders who get browsing time in school). And I want to make sure that my readers can see for themselves that, no, I am not overreacting.

The list includes:

  • Princess Leia (“Star Wars”): “Leia is a twin. And we all know being a twin totally doubles your pleasure, doubles your fun.”
  • Sil (“Species”): “Raise your hand if you know a chick whose primary — nay, ONLY — goal is to get it on.”
  • Seven of Nine (“Star Trek: Voyager”): “She’s used to holographic relationships, which means you get to go with the guys to the game while your hologram is wiping her tears during that Chick Flick you’re dying to never see.”
  • Leela (“Futurama”): “She can’t exactly be all up in your business. It’s not like she can sleep with one eye open.”
  • The alien queen (“Aliens”): “I mean, the chick is fertile. I’m not alone here … right? Have I mentioned she’s fertile?”
  • Leeloo (“The Fifth Element”): “She won’t say much, since she … well, can’t. One word, three syllables: MUL-TI-PASS!”
  • T’Pol (“Star Trek: Enterprise”): “You’ve got yourself a certified alien hottie! …While your chances of hooking with T’Pol are slim to none, your chances of one day meeting a Vulcan are…more likely than they were before. Using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and the SETI Institute now claim that there’s a solar system which is a younger twin of our own, just 10.5 light-years from us.” (At last, science!)

While these revolting views are offered in the first person, the person who has offered them remains anonymous (for good reason?).

The Science Channel offers “more aliens and outer space” online, including “top 10 alien sightings,” “top 10 things aliens say behind our backs,” aaand…information “about the SETI Institute”!


I have my issues with the Science Channel, which offers slivers of science embedded in fluff and fantasy (a.k.a. crazy made-up stuff). The Science Channel, the self-described “home for alien programming” on TV, is owned by Discovery Communications, which bills itself as “the world’s #1 nonfiction media company reaching more than 2 billion cumulative subscribers in 220 countries and territories.” Discovery Communications earned $1.1 billion in net income on revenues of $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2013. Among its strongest series are “Amish Mafia,” “Fast ‘n’ Loud,” and “Naked and Afraid.” The corporation owns The Learning Channel, which airs programs such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Sister Wives”; and Animal Planet, whose programs include “Finding Bigfoot” and “Mermaids: The New Evidence.”

Very educational.

This year the Science Channel aired Season 3 of its TV series “Alien Encounters,” which mixes science with fiction to speculate on “the impact of aliens on humanity” (“Science Channel,” 2014). I’ve only watched one episode, as it caused me to beat my head against the wall.

A press release announcing Season 3 states: “How would the world react to an alien race arriving on Earth? How would the human race be forever changed by extraterrestrials? What would be the impact of human contact with aliens? With 74-percent of Americans believing in the existence of aliens and 15 million believing they’ve actually made contact with extraterrestrials, many people have burning questions about life beyond Earth and its impact on humans…. According to Science Channel general manager Rita Mullin, ‘Making contact with life outside of Earth is a source of endless fascination for our viewers. [‘Alien Encounters’] feeds their interest with the perfect blend of intriguing, speculative questions plus perspective from real experts, and information about the latest scientific advancements. With [this] one-a-kind series…and our annual ARE WE ALONE? event, viewers continue to turn to Science Channel as the home for alien programming on television’.”

Real experts, eh? As opposed to what other kind? (By the way, at least one of those experts works for the SETI Institute.)

According to The Futon Critic, a Web-based prime-time TV report, the June 17, 2014, episode of “Alien Encounters” ranked #47 on the Nielsen ratings list for the night, drawing an audience of 271,000 viewers including 102,000 adults ages 18-49. At #1 on the list for that night was “America’s Got Talent,” with “Extreme Weight Loss” at #7, and “Real Housewives of New York City” at #30. For Tuesday June 10, “Alien Encounters” ranked #48; for June 3, #44.

The Science Channel also has aired “Aliens: The Definitive Guide,” a two-part program billed asan ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ of non-Earth life forms, and an investigation into the latest scientific understanding of life beyond planet Earth.” Says Debbie Myers, executive vice president and general manager of the Science Channel, “So many people are obsessed with the existence of aliens. ARE WE ALONE? ignites their imaginations with bold new questions, and engages current research happening in the field of extraterrestrial life. It’s programming that asks questions and makes you think. We hope ARE WE ALONE? advances the conversation even further.”


By the way, a one-hour prime-time TV program typically will feature 40 minutes of content and 20 minutes of advertising. Web sites and other promotional tools for these programs are loaded with ads as well. The primary purpose or function of all this content is to make money. (See: Discovery Communications.) 

Talk amongst yourselves.



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