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Near-Earth Object Geographies: Setting an Agenda
he most recent newsletter (February 2021) from the European Space Agency’s Near Earth Object Coordination Centre, lists 25,423 known asteroids and 113 comets. The rate of detection is increasing with 350 more NEOs discovered this year than in the same period last year (ESA 2020). 1141 of those objects are on the ‘risk list’; an inventory of all known objects with a non zero impact probability.
Such extra-terrestrial accounting endevours reflect the growing realization of our vulnerability to collision and present a challenge unlike any other. There is now widespread recognition that the Earth – far from occupying a benign position within the perfect clockwork universe imagined by Newtonian physics – sits, in fact, within a ‘cosmic shooting gallery’ (Asher et al 2005) indifferent to our presence where astronomic impacts are a regular feature of planetary life and one the most significant geological processes in the solar system (Osinki and Pierazzo 2012).
Asteroids, comets and other Near Earth Objects (NEOs) often appear impossibly remote, occupying spaces and times beyond the boundaries of our planet. At the same time, they are sources of fascination, packaged as ‘apocalypse pop-culture’ through movies of precarious cosmic (near)encounter, which ironically distance the idea of collision from reality. And yet like other extra-terrestrial objects (from space stations to satellites), ‘off-earth’ matter in the form of NEOs relates intimately to life ‘on earth’. For example, a heritage of collisions with the cosmos can be encountered directly in the form of impact craters that testify to past contact, as well as, of course, various impactors themselves such as meteorites, and space junk that falls from the sky to remind us periodically of our perpetual bombardment . Indeed, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports that most meteorites on Earth are scattered across the planet, and typically ‘range between the size of a pebble and a fist’ (NASA, n.d). In some sense, then, in spite of their apparent otherworld peculiarity, they exist amongst us as unseen markers of our place in the wider universe. Their impact, however, (quite literally) can be more profound. Impact craters, meteorites, and collision events – when noticed – also confront us with the possibility, even inevitability, of devastation. They connect us to a pre-human past and a post-human future. They threaten ‘our’ security and also work to re-enliven it (Kofler et al 2019).
The risk of death from an asteroid or cometary strike is statistically greater than being struck by lightning or experiencing a tsunami or plane crash (Posner 2004, Napier 2008). And yet our concerns about cosmic annihilation are eclipsed by more conceivable menaces such as sea-level rise, pandemics, geohazards and extreme weather events. And that said, the risk of securing ourselves against a collision, for example by developing a massive land-based asteroid-busting missile, is far from benign.
This short essay outlines an agenda for critical social research on cosmic collisions that links emerging theories of resilience and the elemental with the substance of impacts historical and anticipated. Our aim is to call for more widespread reflection on our ‘planetary precarity’ and to position that precarity much more firmly alongside an all too often terra-bound, or discretely ‘earth-limited’ environmental politics. Cosmic collision is not merley another existential threat but a prompt to expand the remit of our geographical concern about humanity, life and its place in relation to the universe.
Assessing the Extra-Planetary Scene: A Geography Far, Far Away
Outer space has long been part of Geography’s early modern heritage, with Alexander Von Humboldt’s classic Kosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (1860) and the work of Elijah Burritt mapping the “heavens” and celestial realm in the late nineteenth century (see MacDonald 2007, 595). Such interest extended in later theories of early twentieth century scholars such as Mackinder (with his “pivot” and “heartland” concepts) and has been adapted to explain extra-planetary relations (see Dolman 2002).
Despite these early beginnings, there is less sustained scholarship on the cosmos in contemporary human geographies (see the work of MacDonald and Dunnett for key exceptions). Cosgrove (1994) traced the optics of Apollo’s eye within the western cartographic imagination, while MacDonald (2007), in his agenda-setting paper, outlined the need for further critical studies of “astropolitics”. The increasing use of outer space for “gadgetry” creates new relations between states, citizens and the cosmos, requiring new modes of civilian and military surveillance. Further work has taken up MacDonald’s call to examine ‘other worldly’ geographical imaginations, the uneven ‘on-earth’ labour vital to ‘off-earth’ activities; the moral geographies of space exploration, and the emerging environmental geographies of outer space (see Dunnett et al 2019). The concept of the Anthropocene, in particular, has prompted scholars to assume a planetary perspective (Lorimer 2017), where human (ab)uses of Earth threaten our very existence. In discourses concerned with over-population and resource scarcity, outer space opens-up as a possible new frontier for colonisation in the face of inevitable “earthly apocalypse” (Dunnett et al 2019). Yet within such work, recognition of the planetary threat from asteroids and comets is largely absent. Rather, NEOs and the threat of cosmic collisions, remain more regularly known by the specialisms of geomorphology, meteoritics and planetary science.
If we are too fully think through what a collision might mean for humanity, we need to understand exactly how human relations with Near Earth Objects operate in various contexts and across different spatial and temporal scales. Recommendation 8 of the UK Task Force on potentially hazardous near-earth objects (Atkinson 2000) calls for multidisciplinary studies of asteroid impact highlighting the importance of social science. We argue that ‘more-than’ human geographies in particular, have an important role to play in examining how collisions with the cosmos inform our understandings of (extra)planetary precarity and security.
The main population of NEOs greater than 1km in diameter (889 as of March 22nd 2021) sit between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in the Main Asteroid Belt. A second more remote source of potential impactors are Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) or long-period comets. These occupy reservoirs known as the Kuiper Belt, the Hills Cloud and Oort Cloud. Leading astrophysisist David Morrison notes that impact events from these and smaller objects could “cause local to regional damage” or “bring civilisation to an abrupt halt” (2019, 139) and this prospect is made more tangible when the threat of Damocloids (undetectable minor planets on eccentric orbits) are also identified as potential impactors (Napier 2008, 222).
How might we make sense of this ‘planetary’ precarity? How can ‘we’ secure ourselves against this risk? Who is ‘protected’ and at what cost? Specifically, what forms of social life and society can be tolerated – and put at risk itself – in the task of securing ‘ourselves’ against impact or in the management of a post-impact world? Indeed, extra-planetary security, as much as planetary security, is an unequal enterprise. As much work on securitization makes plain (Beck 1992, Aradau and van Munster 2011), many forms of oppression have been enabled by those promising protection. Who gets to decide the limits of what is possible in the preservation of humanity, or the protection of life itself? We suggest that any regime of anticipating impact, any technologies of surviellence or insititutions of pre-emption or mitigation should necessarily include ethico-political as well as techno-scientific conversations. And these conversations should start by reflecting on the role and potential of our on-earth impact heritage in all their forms. How might this evidence of previous collision as craters or cratering objects (meterorites) generate opportunities for a more inclusive, equitable and socially just discussion about collective notions of safety?
Modern Genealogies, Histories and Curations of Cosmic Encounter
Meteorites and the impact craters they produce are subject to an array of regulatory regimes that recognise their status as cultural property but ultimatley privilege their use for scientific study. Meteorites and craters have accumulated rich social histories and accrued peculiar biographies and magical qualities since ancient times. Their more modern histories of discovery, excavation, transportation and display are no less mysterious, and their framing as objects of science through taxonomy and exhibition illustrate well the productive symytry of geology and politics (Bobbette and Donovan 2019, 2).
While some sites evidencing impact, such as Barringer Crater in Arizona, or the UNESCO World Heritage Site Stevns Klint (a chalk cliff on the Danish island of Zealand) are packaged within a global collision heritage portfolio, other impact craters, for instance the Kentland Crater in Indiana, are mined for their collision-generated nickel-copper sulphide and industrial limestone. As with impact craters, the laws of ownership relating to meteorites are also ambiguous and complex. Enthusiast prospectors, multimillionaire celebrity collectors, and international auction houses alongside researchers within cosmic mineralogy and planetary science are bound together in a dynamic of certification, sale and global re-distribution of meteoritic material which for many would be regarded as a ‘degrading of the sample’.
Current scholarship pays very little attention to the epistemological histories of impact evidence or that evidence’s potential use for informing contemporary discussions around environmental change. There is limited critical reflection on the appropriation and relocation of meteorites by imperial science (Davies 2016) or inclusive public discussion on the rights and responsibilities of managing, preserving and otherwise making sense of this evidence in relation to planetary security. Indeed, international astronomic heritage seems relatively ‘impact averse’ with its focus on the conservation of dark skies (Rodrigues et al 2015) and the preservation of telescopes and historical observatories (Cotte and Ruggles, 2010). Crucially, and we argue, unfortunately, outside identifying asteroid-driven extinction events, (Alvarez et al 1980, Firestone et al 2007) there seems little in the way of heritage or interpretation connecting past astronomical impact with contemporary environmental concerns about sustainability, climate change and ecological resiliance. It is crucial, therefore, to interrogate much more fully how meteorites and impact craters have come to be known in the present and how they might inform our collision-prone futures.
Pre-Emptive Surveillance and Hazard Management of NEOs
Connecting histories of impact with a ‘post-impact’ or ‘primed-for-impact’ world requires working through the complexities of ecological governance (Fagan 2017), resilience (Grove 2018), civil contingency (O’Grady 2018), and the management of societal risk and emergency (Adey and Anderson 2012). Studies of security and management of planetary risk have thus far been undeniably ‘earthly’ in focus, concentrating on relatively-short term and invariably human-centric environmental hazards such as species extinction and climate change. Recent work has started to attend to the security beyond ‘terra’, or grounded earth, building on pre-emption of risk from elements (fire, air, water) and wider planetary capacities and processes (mudslides and ice melt, see Peters et al 2018) but this research has yet to work through the implications of recognising our world as part of a chaotic solar system indifferent to our presence. It seems, by turns, heretical and nihilistic to declare that life is not the cosmic default but this must be the starting point for any inquiry that properly considers our ‘planetary’ precarity in its broader spatial and temporal planetary context.
Contemporary resilience thinking has explored (post)political modes of “adapting to and living with a pathological earth” (Grove and Chandler 2017, 85). However, attention to the future remains focused on “conventional, bio, nuclear and chemical terrorism… human and non-human infectious diseases and transgenic pandemics… and abrupt ecological disaster and destruction in the context of global warming and ozone depletion” (amongst other Anthropocentric impacts) (Anderson 2010, 779). Research on planning-for-impact extends the remit of our concern to the cosmic and this brings into play a different suite of imaginaries and imperatives, as well as generates new subject formations that need to be ‘made resilient’ in light of such risk (Grove and Adey 2015).
Closing in on Collisions?
There is then an essential continuity between collision heritage and practices of pre-emption that we need to take seriously if we are to avoid the extremes of impact blindness on the one hand or debilitating cosmic terror (Bakhtin 1984) on the other. Contemporary impact imaginaries from popular media, science-fiction to the work of amateur observations and government-led rehersals of planetary defence drift between sinister fantasies of societal re-alignment and technological salvation. Pathways between those two extremes can be negotiated by connecting ‘on-earth’ evidence with ‘off-earth’ objects for an urgent and overdue discussion about societal response at a time when our capacity to identify collision threat is rapidly increasing.
 See accounts of the pre-solar fragment that collided with a residential driveway in the Gloucestershire town of Winchcomb in early March 2021 for an example of the mainstream media’s fascination with these events and their emphasis on cosmic-domestic juxtasposition.
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Kimberley Peters is a Human Geographer based in Germany at the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity (with the Alfred Wegener Institute and University of Oldenburg), interested in the governance of non-terrestrial spaces, especially the sea. https://kimberleypeters.com/
Gareth Hoskins is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Aberystwyth University. He has established research interests in heritage and commemoration and an emerging research focus on cultures of weather and the collection and display of meteorites.