|The Week That Was
January 20, 2001
NEW ON THE SEPP WEB:
[From The Independent (London)]
The UK Government is expected to approve construction of a £10m telescope dedicated to finding comets and asteroids before they hit Earth. The Science minister, Lord Sainsbury, is expected to accept one of the main proposals in a Government task force report - to develop a telescope with European partners to track "near-Earth objects" that could threaten the planet.
Scientists from the Government's expert team are now urging it to begin devising ways to deflect the objects when they have been identified. Their report suggested detonating a nuclear bomb in space to deflect asteroids, using space craft to nudge objects out of their orbits, or erecting solar panels like sails on an asteroid, using the sun's radiation pressure to change its course.
The ideas may sound like the script from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact. However, the scientists warned: "This is not science fiction."
An asteroid traveling at more than 20 miles per second missed the Earth by 480,000 miles last week, a near-miss in astronomical terms. The 50-yard wide asteroid, called 2000 YA, appeared unexpectedly above London at midnight on Friday. Space experts said it would have left a crater about 20 times its size if it had struck.
Massive asteroid and comet strikes on Earth have been well documented, including one 50 yards across which exploded 15 miles above Siberia in 1908. A comet hitting the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago is thought to caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
NASA will launch its own Deep Impact mission to the comet Tempel 1 in 2004. The probe will release a half ton lump of pure copper to cause a huge crater in the comet so that its composition can be studied from Earth.
The threat posed by the Mir Russian space station as it falls to Earth has also highlighted the real risks from impacts of objects from space.
Harry Atkinson, the chairman of the Government task force on "near-Earth objects," said: "We hope all our recommendations will be taken up but the telescope is the important one. We need to know where the objects are coming from. That is the high priority. It needs to be dedicated, working all the time."
Dr Atkinson said his three-man team began as skeptics but became more convinced of the need for action as they investigated the threat.
A telescope to hunt for objects in outer space on a path to Earth could be established in co-operation with European partners in the inter-governmental European southern observatory in Chile, which Britain has recently joined.
While the chances of a direct hit on Britain are remote, an object only 50 yards across hitting the mid-Atlantic would set up a shock wave which would cause devastation on the shores of the Continent, Britain and the eastern seaboard of the US.
Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP who led the successful Parliamentary campaign to persuade the Government to take the outer-space threat seriously, said a "sheath in space" or "cosmic condom" could be the best way of deflecting asteroids or comets comprising rocks and gas.
"You could have a big plastic cosmic condom or space sheath to collect near-Earth objects and tow them away to safety," he said.
SEPP Comment: Dear Lembit, your grandfather Ernst Oepik, the distinguished Estonian-Irish expert on asteroids and comets, would not have approved of your methods. The laws of celestial mechanics do not permit such an operation; it's completely impractical. Anything light enough to be "conveyed" with your sheath would be easily stopped in the Earth's upper atmosphere.
In a NY Times op-ed, perennial alarmist Bill McKibben (of "The End of Nature" fame) bewails the failure of the Clinton/Gore White House to achieve international agreement on the Kyoto Protocol at last November's climate conference in The Hague. It collapsed because the US was willing to give up only 90 percent of its initial position but the Europeans wanted complete surrender.
Now, of course, they may end up with nothing. President Bush should certainly re-examine both the scientific rationale and the consequences of a Kyoto accord. McKibben quotes scary climate projections but fails to mention that none of these theoretical predictions has as yet been validated by actual climate observations. Why then should we believe them?
We are on firmer ground when we consider the effects of the cutbacks in energy use demanded by Kyoto. We need only look at the crisis in California, where supply has not been allowed to keep up with growing electricity demand. About 27 million customers are affected, 10% of the US population. As liberal economist Paul Krugman correctly points out (NY Times, Jan.7), only higher prices or some means of rationing can solve the crisis through some kind of enforced energy conservation.
Meanwhile, rationing proceeds in California: Stage 3 emergencies and blackouts as power reserves dwindle to near zero. First, interruptible customers are cut off. But then, as a sudden shortage of 1000 megawatts develops, rolling blackouts hit 1.5 million customers, including schools, traffic lights, crashed computers, stalled elevators, mainly in Northern California. (There is not enough transmission capacity from Southern Cal to make up the shortfall.).
But San Francisco strikes back boldly. City attorney Louise Renne sues: "These companies are playing with marked cards corporations are taking advantage of a deregulated market to make a quick buck." Atttaboy, Louise. How politically correct!
What a wonderful object lesson this debacle is for the rest of the country and even the world. The basic problem is a shortage of generating capacity. California hasn't built a power plant worth mentioning in over 12 years, because of environmental opposition to coal, oil, and nuclear. Not enough pipelines and transmission lines either. However, a lot more wind mills and solar panels on the roofs of Sacramento.
The California "deregulation" scheme, enacted to yield lower prices to consumers, is a sham. Utilities were forced to sell their generating plants and buy on the spot market, but could not enter into long-term contracts with out-of-state suppliers. Worst of all, while their wholesale cost was indeed unregulated, they were forced to sell at regulated low prices "to protect consumers." It's the ideal recipe for going bankrupt: buying high and selling low. And that's exactly what's happening. They are defaulting on bank loans, hurting pension funds, spreading the disaster to the rest of the nation.
Moreover, this doesn't count the price increases sure to follow, caused by the economic losses experienced by Cal agriculture and industry. The nation is already experiencing natural gas prices 3 to 4 times higher than normal, largely because of the increasing demand from gas turbines that are built to produce electric power at relatively short notice and much favored by Green groups.
The Independent System Operator, the Cal state agency charged with ensuring a balance in power supply and deciding about blackouts, estimates that California needs at least 10,000 megawatts in the next 3 to 4 years. Much of that will have to come from natural gas- produced electricity -- at very high cost.
And what is Cal governor Gray Davis doing about this self-inflicted mess? About what might be expected. He is using taxpayer's money to buy power on the wholesale market and handing it off to the utilities for distribution. Even the Washington Post (editorial of Jan 20) admits that his plan "fails to confront the main cause of the crisis, which is that California's regulation unsustainably protects consumers from paying market prices for electricity."
Consumer groups are already taking steps to keep retail prices from rising: threatening the ever-popular California ballot initiative. With Green groups clamoring for higher prices to enforce conservation, the irony of the situation is both comical and delicious.
Where are all the apostles preaching painless conservation? Where is Amory Lovins with his "negawatts," now that we need him? Why isn't Paul Ehrlich telling us again, how good it is to get along with less power? Where is the drive to put up more windmills? If every Californian were to cover his roof with solar cells, it would solve the problem. Or so they say.
Nothing demonstrates the bankruptcy of Green ideology like this crisis ---which may soon spread to other states. We are seeing here a preview of the effects of the Kyoto Protocol.