Letter from Rusty Schweickart

Happy New Year, 2024; Welcome aboard!

This is the first year we will be awarding the Schweickart Prize to a grad student (or team) who come up with a proposal that, if developed and successful, will materially improve our ability to protect life on the planet from future asteroid impacts.

I want everyone involved, the students who apply, our Schweickart Prize outreach Ambassadors, our planetary defense experts, and our B612 Foundation staff, to know how personally excited and delighted I am that we're initiating this award. Not only will all of us (meaning the world) benefit directly from the clever ideas that will emerge from you, the applicants, but all of you will delight in discovering the fascinating complexities that comprise the many facets of planetary defense.

The roots of this field go back to the turn of the century when about 20 of us, aware that an increasing number of near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) were being discovered, realized that no one was taking on the issue of what could be done to protect life from impacts to come. We met for several days, figured out that yes, current technology was capable of reducing the risk, and that our best way forward was by forming a non-profit charitable organization to work the issues. A year later we incorporated B612 Foundation and adopted our goal to 'change the orbit of an asteroid, in a controlled manner, by 2015'.

As you would expect, we learned a great deal in the first few years, but perhaps most important was our realization that deflecting an asteroid headed for Earth impact generally meant causing its arrival time to occur early enough or late enough that the Earth was not in the intersection of the two orbits when the asteroid passed through it. The underside of this realization, however, is that a deflection that doesn't quite change the arrival time enough means that it will now impact elsewhere on Earth rather than miss the planet entirely. We've often stated this inescapable reality by saying that in deflecting an asteroid people (think nations) not initially at risk will have to accept a temporary increase in risk in order to eliminate the risk for all. 

While this risk shifting element of deflection is a result of orbital dynamics, it introduces a new and challenging component of planetary defense. People literally across the planet (along a line called the risk corridor) would be put at risk by a deflection, and therefore would justifiably expect to be involved in the decision-making, and perhaps execution process for such an action. Reality, in the form of imperfect knowledge of the NEO orbit, will translate into the nominal impact point itself not being known precisely at the time a decision to deflect must be made. These imperfections in our knowledge and execution of the deflection introduce complex geopolitical (and legal, and social) issues in any deflection contemplated.

While both the technical (early warning and deflection) and geopolitical (social, legal, economic) components inherent in planetary defense are challenging, they are also fascinating, both intellectually and philosophically.

In regard to the latter, it took years before most of us working on planetary defense realized that, at the highest level, we were quite literally proposing to ever-so-slightly alter the clockwork of the solar system in order to enhance the survival of life on the planet. Asteroid impacts are an equal-opportunity threat, and the only rational response is collective action. We, together, are the life of the planet, and we must act together to protect it. 

Asteroid impacts are not the only existential threat we face, but it is one that we understand and know can be eliminated. If we're clever enough; if we can get our act together. Welcome aboard.