Episode #66: So You’re Saying We Can’t Just Blow Up An Asteroid? (transcript)
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: That was very Edward Murrow of you.
Brian: Oh, I don't know who that is.
Quinn: Can you do it again? Deliver it again?
Brian: The same way?
Quinn: Yeah, that was really good.
Brian: I don't know how. And I'm Brian ... I don't know. Who's Edward Murrow?
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Quinn: You can also join thousands of other smart, kind, caring, actionable people and subscribe to our free weekly newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. On this week's episode Brian, we're talking about asteroids. And let me tell you something, we were wrong.
Brian: Wrong about asteroids.
Quinn: We were very wrong.
Quinn: I feel like so much of my life has been a lie.
Brian: Well, not a lie. Well, a lie.
Quinn: We have to get back.
Brian: Our guest today is professor KT Ramesh. He is now our hero, and he will probably be yours too.
Quinn: For ... yeah. I mean, when you research a guest, you go, "This could be fun." And you book in and you go, "This could be really fun." And then within 30 seconds of talking ... and again, we love all of them. They're like our children.
Brian: Oh, absolutely.
Quinn: I mean, clearly we have favorites, but the point is, within 30 seconds I was like, "Oh, man." I think you said, you were like, "I could do this all day."
Brian: Yeah, this is a great one, guys.
Quinn: It's a good one. And again, your entire life is a lie.
Quinn: Let's go talk to KT. Our guest today is professor KT Ramesh. And together we're going to ask, so apparently, Brian, we can't just blow up an asteroid.
Quinn: Yeah. KT, welcome.
KT Ramesh: Glad to be here.
Brian: We are very happy to have you. KT, let us know who you are and what you do, sir.
KT Ramesh: Let's see. I go by Professional KT Ramesh, but most people just call me KT. I am a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. I'm also the director of something called the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute. And one of the things we study is country defense.
Quinn: We usually don't go into too much backstory, but the director of the Extreme Materials Institute is just too exciting.
Brian: That's incredible.
Quinn: How does one find that space much less run a lab in it? I have young children and two of which are boys. And I think they believe that they operate in the extreme materials space. They do not.
Brian: I'm pretty sure I do also.
Quinn: Right. I would love to hear about briefly how you got to where you are and what you do all day basically.
KT Ramesh: Well, let me start by telling you about the institute. So the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute, we call it HEMI for short, H-E-M-I, it's basically an institute that's focused on trying to understand the critical problems that we tend to have when you are exposed to an extreme environment. Our tagline is, we are protecting people, structures and the planet. That's our range of interest.
Brian: This is incredible.
KT Ramesh: We're generally interested in those things that are really important, but really complicated. And so, actually, a great example of this, imagine what happens if you saw a really bright explosion, a really large explosion, let's say a nuclear blast. What happens as soon as the event occurs, the light is so bright that you close your eyes, right? You're trying to avoid looking at it. And there's a lot of events that are like that where the action is so intense that we look away or we close our eyes for it.
KT Ramesh: And the nature of our institute is, that's the place where we keep our eyes open. We got instruments that really can look into the event, understand what happens during the event. So, we are driven on those kinds of problems. The really intense problems where the energies are really high. A lot of things are happening in a very short time. We're trying to understand what happens on those very first few instance, and then from that, to build up to the longer term. And I guess the way we see it is, if we understand that very beginning of the event, then we can protect against that sort of the big picture.
Quinn: Wait, so are you the Avengers? I'm confused
KT Ramesh: Yeah. Actually, when we got started, the superhero of choice was Captain America. So the idea was, we're going to build Captain America's new shield.
Brian: Oh, my God.
KT Ramesh: Well, we might have to pay you a visit.
Brian: Let's never stop talking.
KT Ramesh: I'm excited. That's amazing.
Brian: All right. So Dr. Ramesh, just as a reminder to everyone else, and to let you know what we do here is, we're going to provide some context for our topic and our question today, and then dig into some action-oriented questions that get to the core of why we should give a shit about you and what you do, and what everybody who's listening can can do about it. Does that sound good?
KT Ramesh: Sounds great.
Quinn: So, KT, we'd like to start with one important question, and you did cheat by listening to the other episodes, so you might know what's coming. Instead of saying, tell us your whole life story, we like to ask KT, why are you, and I feel like you just answered this, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
KT Ramesh: Yeah, I think that is the craziest question.
Quinn: I don't know, man. You just told us what you do all day and you literally, you said your motto is basically, you're the Avengers, it's avengers assemble. So, I don't want to hear, "That's a crazy question."
KT Ramesh: All right. Let me put it this way. I don't think I'm important to survival of the species, but the kinds of things we work on, absolutely. No question about it.
Quinn: I love it. That's so great. One day I'm going to ask Brian this question.
Brian: No, please don't.
Quinn: Yeah, we'll see how that goes.
Brian: I'm going to say because I worked for HEMI, don't ask any further questions.
Quinn: I'm taking out HEMI's garbage, which is, I mean, I would do that [crosstalk 00:07:04]
Brian: By the way, yeah. If you're hiring, I will be your janitor.
Quinn: Okay. I'm sure he's got a great janitor. We're going do a little -
KT Ramesh: I do. His name is James. He's terrific.
Brian: Damn it. All right.
Quinn: Well, let us know anything else. We're going to do a little context here, and professor, please tell me all of the different ways in which I'm incorrect here so that just, we just want to get everyone on the same page so we can get into this thing. So, we're talking about asteroids today. Here's very brief and poorly put together history. For a long time, everybody thought the earth was flat. A little bit later, we discovered, well it turns out we're not the center of the solar system, and that we in fact, orbit the sun instead of vice versa.
Quinn: Along the way we discovered most of the rest of the planets in our system, and some of the big moons in our neighborhood. And in 1801 while drawing a star map, which I'm sure brought all the ladies to the yard. Giuseppe Piazzi, an astronomer and priest, accidentally discovered the first and probably not coincidentally largest astroid series. Is that how you say it professor?
KT Ramesh: Series right?
Quinn: Series, yeah.
KT Ramesh: Yup.
Quinn: Cut to 197 years later, Bruce Willis saves the whole world in Armageddon.
Brian: We love talking about Armageddon in this podcast.
Quinn: Yup, we had a matter of days before the big one hits. We set up this can tinkers crude oil drillers, told them to drill to, I think it was 800 feet, drop a nuke and book it out of there. We lost one guy, but otherwise, everything is fine. Problem solved. Here's the thing, we are hit with stuff from space all the time, dust and sand, some bigger stuff, almost all of it burns up. Some of it doesn't, about once a year, like a car sized asteroid hits or atmosphere, but that burns up to before it can in movie magic conveniently blow up a very specific landmark.
Quinn: But earth hasn't always been so lucky. There are a load of ancient craters from the past couple billion years. Earth is about four and a half billion years old, and there's enough of these [critters 00:09:15] with a radius over 50 miles. And any one of those would turn off the lights, night night. The asteroid that probably at least helped kill off of my precious dinosaurs was from what I understand, anywhere from, I think the craters estimated from 100 to 180 miles wide. Is that correct?
KT Ramesh: Right.
Quinn: And how big do we think the actual asteroid was?
KT Ramesh: Probably about 10 kilometers.
Quinn: Okay. So large. So 2 billion years is a long time though. The solar system was a much crazier place back then. There was lots of stuff flying around planets and moons being formed, etc. But still at some point, something particularly nasty is going to come our way and we need a plan to deal with it because the dinosaurs did not, and that's their fault. But there's a bunch of different ideas. Popular Culture has probably for worse, for better, worse, honed in on the blow shit up idea. There's some bad news recently and Dr. Ramesh has been in the news discussing why that plan is not so great. With that, for some quick context, let's talk about our question here, which is apparently we can't just blow up at killer asteroid.
Quinn: So, KT, if you could just dash my dreams entirely.
Brian: Please. Oh God, that sounds great.
Quinn: I saw a simulation, I believe it was in the Washington Post and linked a few other places. It was very 2D, it looked like a game of asteroids, but it was more or less terrifying. It's like the asteroid equivalent of the T-1000 terminator healing up and coming back together in Terminator 2 where you're like, "Oh, we can't actually kill this thing." So in it, we blow up a lot but not all the asteroid. And then, Brian, you've gotta watch this thing.
Brian: I can't wait.
Quinn: Because of the gravity, all the pieces come back together.
Brian: Oh, my God.
Quinn: Professor, what happened here? How did we get to that point? Where did you stumble onto this? Destroy everything for me.
KT Ramesh: Sure. Okay. Actually, your history, your overall big picture was actually very good.
Quinn: That's very kind of you.
KT Ramesh: I think the really interesting thing about the asteroids, is there's lots and lots of them. Now, not very many of them are a real threat to the earth. So I think one thing to take off the table upfront, we don't have an immediate problem, not something to worry about right now.
KT Ramesh: But really, our interest is in making sure that when we do have a problem that we are aware of what we can do, and then work our way through addressing the issue. Let me go back to your primary quest at this question of can you blow up and asteroid? Yes you can. The question is, will it stay blown up? Will it stay apart when blow up broadly enough for you to do whatever you want?
KT Ramesh: There is a different question of should your blow up an asteroid? And I think the basic answer to that is no. But what we were looking in the news item I think you were talking about, it turns out that if you have an asteroid that's reasonably big and you blow it up, you hit it with something really hard, and you throw a lot of pieces out into the space, but most of them are still an orbit and they will re accumulate. And so, you end up rebuilding your asteroid, now it's covered with bits of rock. But it's been rebuilt because of the gravity, and it takes the case of the asteroid, we were looking at it takes only about six hours to rebuild itself.
Brian: That is so wild.
KT Ramesh: Doesn't take that long before you've got the same thing still coming at you. The core of that problem was really the gravity. Gravity is a monster. It never stops. It's always falling.
Quinn: Had we just not asked that second part of the question before? Because it feels like that's the 10 minutes of the movie Armageddon that nobody has seen. Like the last scene was, "Oops, it came back together." Have we just forgotten about gravity and thinking about this or?
KT Ramesh: Yeah. I think there are lots of things at the movie usefully forgets about [right 00:13:25] to keep the dramatic cost [crosstalk 00:13:28] But the way to think about this is. if your body, or initial asteroid is big enough, then, gravity is simply the dominant force. If it's small enough, then, essentially, yes you can't blow it up and the pieces will move apart. You want to distinguish between two different questions still. This question of should you blow it up? Right?
KT Ramesh: That's really an important question.
Quinn: And you said you think the answer is no. Could you talk to us about that?
KT Ramesh: Yeah, definitely I would say the answer's no. Let's think through the problem from a big picture viewpoint. You have an incoming asteroid of some size, and really the concern you have is that it's going to impact the earth. And if it impacts the earth, then it has some consequences. Now, the consequences depend on how big it is, and what it's made off and where it impacts. But broadly speaking, the argument is, if you think about the thing that killed off the dinosaurs, so that comes in, hits the ground, generates a huge, massive ejector. So lots of stuff that's thrown up into the air. Some of it goes into orbit, but it comes back into the atmosphere. And then the atmosphere itself is disruptive because you've got all of this stuff in it. And so that change in the global climate is part of what causes the problem in terms of extinction, right?
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KT Ramesh: So that's one kind of event. Now, the real thing you want to do there is to avoid the impact in the first place. So the way you think about the impact, earth is moving along its orbit, the asteroid's moving along its orbit. And the reason you have an impact is because there's a point in space and time, but the two want to be in the same place. That's the impact. So ideally what you want to do is move the asteroid just a little bit, so that it either goes ahead of the earth or behind the earth until it misses you in time. That's all you want to do. You really don't want to do anything else. Imagine what you do instead is you blow it up, but it's still going in the same direction. All you're going to do is take all of that stuff and couple it into the earth's atmosphere. Really not helping us out very much there.
Quinn: Right. That makes sense. So you'll have some smaller pieces that that burn up, but now you've got, I assume thousands of larger pieces.
Brian: Right, several.
KT Ramesh: You could. So now the question is how big the thing is. So if the thing that was coming in initially was relatively small in the first place, well, okay, it'll cause some damage, but not too much. But the bigger it gets, the more tough you go into, the more mass you going to couple into the atmosphere. And then you get this effect of, you put all this energy into the atmosphere, you've got all this chemistry coming from whatever molecules you've got, whatever kinds of compounds you've gotten though in the body coming in. And broadly speaking, humans are much more sensitive to what happens in the atmosphere than anything else.
KT Ramesh: We live on the skin of this planet, and we're really sensitive to what happens around us.
Quinn: We've also ruined it, but that's a different ...
KT Ramesh: That's another argument.
Brian: All different conversation.
KT Ramesh: That's really the big thing. So, generally what you want to do is work really hard to move the asteroid just a little bit. All this effort you put into blowing it up doesn't really help you.
Quinn: Got it. I mean, that makes a lot of sense.
Brian: Interesting. And you said that there's no immediate threat, which is so wonderful to hear.
Quinn: That's great. A lot of plans for the next couple of weeks [00:17:02].
Brian: Have we found some that matters sort of? That couldn't possibly-
KT Ramesh: Yeah.
Brian: Yeah, and is it a lot? Are they all being tracked?
KT Ramesh: Not all of them are being tracked.
KT Ramesh: There's a neat little thing here, where congress actually mandated that NASA find all asteroids above a certain size that are potentially hazardous to the earth.
Brian: That's shocking.
KT Ramesh: I think this was back in the early '90s or so when they actually asked NASA to do it. And since then, we've been doing it. I would say right now if you ... Let's look at it this way. So, there are a lots of different sizes of asteroids out there. You'll see some things that are like series, you're talking about several hundred kilometers across, several hundred miles across, and then you'll get things that are really the size of your desk or even smaller than that.
KT Ramesh: So the size of your telephone, and you get all of these things that are out there. And if they're big enough, we tend to call them asteroids, otherwise we'd call the meteoroids, but they're all out there. Most things for certain size, up to maybe the size of your desk and maybe a little bit bigger than that, the size of your typical room, the atmosphere is going to protect you from most of them. So, they will tend to blow up in the atmosphere, of blown up in the atmosphere.
KT Ramesh: And so you get things like the Chelyabinsk event, where that was sort of a room sized asteroid and yup, that blew up in the atmosphere, caused a significant amount of damage, but it didn't actually get to making the large crater on the ground. So those are the relatively small size ones. Let's just think about asteroids sort of thing 10 meter kind of size, like a 30 foot kind of size and then going up to a hundred meter kind of size, 300 foot let's say. And then a kilometer, so let's say a mile, and then going up to 10 miles and up. Just think of that range of sizes.
KT Ramesh: Essentially, if it's less than 10 meters, yup, it's likely to blow up in the atmosphere somewhere. It will cause some damage. It's nice to be able to respond to that. There are some other risks about that I'll talk about, but typically those are airbus and they're not going to cause major devastation unless they are fairly large.
Quinn: Let me ask one question just again, trying to take a step back to understand. We talk about, there's so many different sizes and most of them burn up. Is there like a threshold of an ... I imagine it's more complicated than just size as what the composition is in the materials. But is there sort of a size that doesn't burn up? What is the minimum that we're tracking? I guess you said Congress has to track over a certain size.
KT Ramesh: Right. I'd say if it's over a kilometer, it's going to get to the ground. So if it's less than that, now it depends on what it's made of. If it's less than 10 meters, it'll probably blow up against you. So, you're absolutely right. What it's made of does matter. Particularly matters in the smaller sizes. When you get really big, how fast it's moving, and how much momentum it's got with it, that's really what begins to dominate.
Brian: Yeah, I was just going to ask that. So, there are varying speeds at which these things can be flying at us?
KT Ramesh: That's right. Typical asteroids coming at the earth are moving at between 15 and 20 kilometers per second. So a little [crosstalk 00:20:38]
Brian: It sounds like it's really slow.
KT Ramesh: Yeah.
Quinn: Perfect. Great, great, great.
KT Ramesh: So they're really moving. Now, if you get to a comet coming at the earth, that might be more like 50 kilometers per second. So comets come in much faster.
Quinn: Oh, perfect. [crosstalk 00:20:52] Even though we have a bunch of science nerd listeners, I'm going to interrupt real quick and ask you if you can for them, define the difference between an asteroid in a comet for us.
KT Ramesh: All right. Asteroids are ... and the distinction of, there are some bodies that sit in the boundary here. But let's talk about the big picture. The asteroids are basically bodies that are typically, most of them are inside the orbit of Jupiter, they're mostly going between Jupiter and Mars, and then there are a few of them and orbits that are closer to the sun. So just a quick reminder on the solar system, the way it's build, you've got the sun, then going out from that, you've got Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and then Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.
KT Ramesh: Most of the asteroids, we call them the main belt asteroids sitting between Jupiter and Mars in that area. Then there are few that are closer to us. We call them [inaudible 00:21:45] objects, things like [inaudible 00:21:47] that have all the terrace somewhere close to the earth's orbit. But asteroids are typically captured in this near vicinity.
KT Ramesh: Comets, most of the comets that we see coming from much further out, so they're sitting way outside the orbit or live in where Pluto is. Most of them are sitting way out, so we don't see them at all until they begin to get close.
Quinn: Just waiting.
Brian: [inaudible 00:22:13]
KT Ramesh: There's something out there called oops cloud, and I'm not sure I'm pronouncing it right, but that's what I've always said, oops Cloud.
Brian: That's how I pronounce it.
KT Ramesh: Way out there. That's where most of these comets are. And every once in a while something disturbs them from their orbit there and then they fall towards the sun. And so, as they're coming in, they're coming in from so far out. They begin to really pick up speed as they come in, and typically they'll come in on an orbit that [inaudible 00:22:40] ends up swinging around the sun and then they disappear forever, or sometimes it's spinning around the sun, then they get caught by something and then keep going around.
KT Ramesh: So you get some comets, that go between the orbit of Jupiter, they swing between Jupiter and the sun and go back and forth. Those are a little slow if there are comets around Jupiter, and then coming back from the ... they're not as fast as the ones that come in from way out.
Quinn: Got you.
KT Ramesh: That's one distinction. The other differences, we think the comets are probably a little more porous, a little more snowy, a little more ricey than most asteroids.
Quinn: Got you. I see bullets of death.
KT Ramesh: Going back to your question though, about what we're likely to see, I think if they are over a kilometer in size, we believe we probably found, I don't know, 95% of them. If they are the size of the iceberg that sank the titanic, we're probably looking at something that maybe we know about 30%, 35% of them, quite a few out there that we still don't know about.
Brian: Great, great, great. And how big was, I believe I don't know what it was. Was it a meteor that exploded over Russia? Was that six, seven years ago?
KT Ramesh: That's right, 2013. That was the one that blew up over Chelyabinsk?
KT Ramesh: That was asteroid that blew up that. I have beautiful movies of that [inaudible 00:24:05] the dash cams that people had.
Quinn: Right. That was incredible. And so how big was that baby?
KT Ramesh: That's probably the size of a big room. I was going to say it's not really clear exactly what size it was coming in, that's our estimate based on-
Quinn: Got you.
KT Ramesh: ... what we've observed, yeah.
Quinn: Sorry for a thousand questions, but this is just life planning on my part. So why did that one explode in the air as opposed to creating an impact?
KT Ramesh: So basically, it wasn't big enough to do very much to get all the way through the atmosphere. The atmosphere is really quite a protective thing for us. So actually, a good thing for your listeners to think about. Anytime you walk out and look up into the night sky and you look at the moon, and you see the man in the moon, well what we call the man on the moon, those are the scars of asteroids hitting the moon. And so, every time you look up, you are seeing the consequences of those kinds of impacts.
KT Ramesh: If you look at Mars, it's covered with [cratersor 00:25:00] if you look at mercury, it's covered with craters [inaudible 00:25:03]. Earth has a number of them, but it's much harder to see them, and we'd been protected a great deal by our atmosphere. So the atmosphere is really helpful. The thing that happened with [inaudible 00:25:13], the atmosphere really stopped it.
Quinn: Right, right. And we've also ... I have to imagine that there's a number that just disappear into the Pacific and things like that.
KT Ramesh: That's right. That's right.
Quinn: All the time. No one else has 70% water.
KT Ramesh: Yeah. And what also happens is back maybe 200 years ago, we rarely saw these things, but now we've got people living everywhere, and we've got lots of people looking at various kinds of cameras all the time. And so, we absorb many more. It doesn't mean that we're getting hit more often, it's just we are observing more.
Quinn: Sure, sure. And again, I do think that context is important, which is like the solar system, and the galaxy and universe in general, where it was a much different place 2 billion years ago, you know, even 65 million years ago. I wonder if you saw, and then we'll get back to planning, the news recently about the gentlemen who doesn't even have a degree, I believe in paleontology, that thinks he found the three hour window when the Yucatan, "dinosaur killer hit". He believes he has found the Strip and thinks that it hit hard enough, and it was hot enough that it sent up glass in the air, and it came back down, and that he's found this ... You can identify literally down to a three hour window.
Quinn: There was in the news and then radio lab who had done an episode on that event about six years ago, did a follow up of the episode very recently, and we'll put that in the show notes. It's fascinating, but they're like, "Boy, they would have to be a hell of a lot of evidence for that to be right." But it's possible, which is crazy.
KT Ramesh: It's possible. I have not seen that news item, I must say getting something with nutreor window sounds really hard to do, to be that sort.
Quinn: Right, such a tiny amount of time.
KT Ramesh: There's some arguments you could make based on what you observe from an impact what you observe. Not having seen that, shouldn't comment too much about it.
Quinn: Yeah. One of their positions was basically this thing was so large. And I believe you said about 60 miles, so I think typically, people say about the size of Manhattan. And this came in so fast and so hard. It was about, they believe about four times as hard as the surface of the sun, and buried so deep, and it's set up so much glass. There were people, and again, this is all very, you can say controversial but up for debate, always and I think probably always will be. People have said, "Oh, well, it's in a bunch of stuff into the sky. And then the small plants dead off large plants, smaller critters and then the dinosaurs over time as they got sick and didn't have anything to eat." And this new argument is this was so hot and so fast and so large and set up so much glass and change of the temperatures that basically everything was dead within a few hours as opposed to weeks and months and things like that. Which is, I don't know. It seems crazy to me, but pretty wild.
KT Ramesh: Yeah, that I have not seen that. It does sound a little faster than I would expect. But not having seen the data, it's hard for me to go on and gather on that,
Quinn: Yeah, no dinosaur was left to tell us about [inaudible 00:28:29]
KT Ramesh: That's right.
Brian: Wouldn't that be great?
KT Ramesh: There's a good bit of signature of the events that people are looking at. And so, I guess that's the question. How do you piece together a story from the signature of things that are left on the out? And you know [inaudible 00:28:45] a lot of activity on it.
Quinn: Sure. Wait, isn't the signature called the KT Boundary?
KT Ramesh: Yeah, I love that.
Brian: [inaudible 00:28:55] Ramesh, whoa.
Quinn: Come on, man. You're holding back from us.
Brian: Get out of here. It's like you're meant for this.
KT Ramesh: It is called the KT Boundary. And the first time I started doing work in the center, they said, "You've got the perfect name."
Brian: Perfect name.
KT Ramesh: But now there's a group of people who want to change the name of that [inaudible 00:29:13].
Quinn: No way, man.
KT Ramesh: They do. They do. I strongly object, but they want.
Brian: We're team KT forever.
Quinn: Right. We're going to write a strongly worded letter [crosstalk 00:29:19]
Brian: If you need the muscle, you let us know.
KT Ramesh: There you go.
Brian: So, Dr. Ramesh, recently NASA and was it the ESA? One of our global counterparts got together and ran a simulation. I think they called it [OFA 00:29:34]. I don't believe the model was like a dinosaur human killer, but still bad enough to do some serious damage, yeah?
KT Ramesh: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Quinn: Just, can you tell us about the whole thing? What were the assumptions? How did this come to be?
Brian: How did it go?
Quinn: Yeah, are we okay?
KT Ramesh: Now this is a funny story for you. I was actually at that conference when it started out, but I didn't stay till the end of it, so I don't know how it ended up.
Brian: Smart. You got the hell out of there.
Quinn: Things started to trend in one direction and he's like, "You know what? I think I'm good."
KT Ramesh: I'm Sorry, I can't really tell you what the end of that scenario was.
Brian: No problem.
Quinn: I can use my imagination.
KT Ramesh: I left after the very first day.
Quinn: How did this come together? Who was involved and what were the assumptions behind it?
Brian: What happened the first day?
KT Ramesh: Let's talk big picture of it. This was the planetary defense conference. It was held in college park, Maryland not Very far from here, actually. It's one of these things that's how it every couple of years, I believe. This time it happened to be close to DC, so that also made it a little easier for folks to come by. They were a number of countries represented, lots of talks that went to over five days from Monday to Friday. Some talks were as short as, I don't know, 10 minutes, 12 minutes and some went on 18 minutes or so. It's all relatively small talks. But fundamentally, there were people that are from most of the space agencies, from various countries around the world. I think that was something like 18 countries now that have some kind of a space agency at the very least, maybe a satellite up there that they use.
KT Ramesh: Some, of course, are much larger than others. NASA is the big gorilla. The European Space Agency's not very large. Of course, the Russians and the Japanese have fairly large programs. The Chinese do now. All of those folks were represented in various ways. NASA has something called the Planetary Defense Office. There's Boundary Defense Coordination Office that has some funding to work in these directions. My own feeling is it would be good if they had much more money than they do. But-
Quinn: I was going to say when yo say, [crosstalk 00:31:48] it makes me feel like, boy, God, that could be ... there could be a lot more emphasis there.
KT Ramesh: Yeah, you got me on that. This Planetary Defense Coordination office, its intent is to do a couple of different things. One is suppose to understand what's likely to be, the concern coming down. But the other side of it is to ensure that you have a process in place so that if there is an event, then you know how to respond to it.
KT Ramesh: I remember the very first time, people run scenarios like these, you'd up in situations like nobody knew who to call. There wasn't a particular person who might to a particular group that would go to the president and say, "This is coming up." There were a variety of lines of communication that were not in place or is normally, but this punch defense coordination office, their job is to make sure that all of those things are in place to really look at the detection of these potentially hazardous objects, so make sure that we know what fraction of them are nearby, being able to track them, characterize them in some way and know what their sizes are, what they might be made of, what the risks might be, and then figure out what, so communication process. So making sure that that information goes out to the public can be coordinated inside the US government.
KT Ramesh: How do you coordinate with other countries? Because if you have an event like this, it's going to be a global risk. It's never likely to be just a national risk. It will be a global issue. So all of that coordination. So there is a group now that focuses on that. I think they do it really well. The Europeans also have a planetary defense officer. I think they spell it with a c rather than s and we go with an s on the defense, but otherwise-
Quinn: Oh, yes they do.
Brian: Of course, they do.
KT Ramesh: Otherwise, the idea is the same. So I was really impressed with how organized people were and how much they were thinking through these processes. And the idea of every one of these conferences is that somebody creates a scenario, and then updates that scenario every day of the meeting with some new information and you see how the different groups would respond to that. So sort of the classic problem might be at some point you absorb that bodies coming in. Usually, the first time you think that something's coming in, it's really dim and faint and far away. It's hard to get very much information about it. It's hard to be sure what direction it's moving. You don't really have a good sense of the orbit.
KT Ramesh: So then you have to start getting people to start looking at it, getting a handle on what the orbit is, what might it be made of, how big might it be, and all of that takes time. Just getting all of that in place, I think it's a big challenge. My feeling is that the community has gotten much better at coordinating these activities and these challenge cases are a good way to test them out and see what might happen. In some sense, what you'd like to know is what is the risk of an actual impact? You assess that risk and you try to update that risk fairly often because one general way of saying ... and I guess I should start by making sure that all of your listeners are aware, this is not a current risk. We're not really talking about a problem that we have right now. It's not a question of warning. It's none of that. This is just more a question of being aware of what's out there.
Quinn: Would we have a lot of notice?
KT Ramesh: In general, if they are big ones, yes.
Quinn: What's a lot? Because it might be really different for you than Brian.
KT Ramesh: That's true. For most of the things that are likely to be significant risks over a kilometer in size, we would know tens of years to a hundreds of years ahead, maybe even longer than that.
Quinn: Oh, my God. I wasn't expecting that. Holy cow.
Brian: Oh, man. That's so much different than Armageddon.
Quinn: Oh, that's great.
KT Ramesh: So that time, the little ones.
Quinn: Tens of years. But I believe, and not to cut to the end, from what I understand, as you were mentioning earlier, when it probably the most logical solutions is to nudge one of these things in a different direction. It would take us tens of years to actually get our ... we can't just send up a, A) We don't have a spatial anymore and an Apollo Capsule isn't going to shove this out of the way, so, it would take us at least a decade from what I understand to get our shit together to do a project like that. Is that correct?
KT Ramesh: Well, so two different things. In order to get up there and actually try to deflect something wouldn't take you that long. But in order for the deflection to be effective, yeah, you need time. So you think of it this way, if it's relatively close to you and you want to move it out of the way, you have to give it a big kick to move it, right?
KT Ramesh: That's a lot of analogy to give something a lot of momentum, to give something. Whereas, if you have a long time, if let's say you can nudge it 50 years out from when it is likely to be a threat, well, you have 50 years for the nudges that you gave it to take effect. So you can nudge it just a little bit. And so it's not a question of how fast can you get up there, but if you have enough advanced notice, then you don't have to move it very much to do what you need to do.
Quinn: But the converse of that is also, if we have say, 50 years, which sounds like the median, if we have 50 years, we can't use 40 of those to plan and then set something up. It sounds like ...
KT Ramesh: That's definitely true, yeah. Once you know you have a significant risk, then you have to start working on what you want to do in response. And I wouldn't say 50 years in the media, and we don't really ... The statistics of small numbers that are none of them that are at risk for the next hundred years or so. The question is partly how well do we know their orbits and we keep getting better at these. We keep refining our understanding of their orbits. That's the issue, but we have no major risk coming up [inaudible 00:37:38]
Quinn: It sounds like these, first of all, these conferences and simulations are both growing in frequency but also in how successful they are at coming together in it. It does seem like it's both ... Well, it seems like the latter goal is what do we actually do about this specific scenario? But the almost the former is, it's almost like playing a scrimmage soccer game. We're not just playing the scrimmage. We've got to figure out, well who's on the team? And before that, who picks the team and who's the coach and things like that. And it sounds like you feel like, which is just basically how I feel that things are trending better in that direction. There's a communication system. There's a process.
KT Ramesh: I think so. I think so. I think things are definitely better now, and I think people ... The awareness is really important for each government to have some idea of how it would respond. Who would you talk to? Who has the information? Where do you get information from? I think all of that is developing. So, I'm really pleased with where that's going. Now, you know there is a mission that's going to try out one of these technologies.
Quinn: I heard a little bit about that. Can you tell us about that?
KT Ramesh: Yeah, sure. It's called the DART mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test. It's actually going to be launched a couple of years from now. So this is really a technology demonstration. The idea is ... so maybe, let me back up for a minute. When you want to move a astroid, there are basically three ways you can move it, not blowing it up, just moving. One way to move it is to do what you might call a standoff nuclear blast. You have set up a nuclear explosion, not in the astroid, not on the asteroid, but off at some distance from the asteroid.
KT Ramesh: And then that essentially, you couple to the surface of the asteroid, you generate X rays of a bunch of other things that you can push the asteroid a little bit with that. That's one way to do it. Another way to do it is with something called the gravity tractor. That is you take another body, and you bring it around the asteroid, and then you move, you go and orbit around the asteroid and effectively it's like shifting the center of mass, and so, slowly you can move the asteroid that way. And the third way is called the kinetic impactor. So you take something and you hit it, and you're not hitting it with the intention of blowing it up, but you're hitting it with the intention of moving it.
KT Ramesh: So, that last technology, the [inaudible 00:39:58] is what is being tested out in this .mission. If I remember right it goes up in something like June or July of 2021 and we'll actually make impact in November, December of 2021.
KT Ramesh: It's a full scale test. I mean, so this thing has all been designed and people are setting up to launch, and there's a whole sequence of groups that are trying to work on this. So it's really drawn by NASA. It's a part of the of Planetary Defense Program. It's managed actually being built at the Hopkins Applied Physics lab or just down the street from where I'm sitting right now. And it's got some really cool technology on it. But fundamentally, what it's going to do is move towards or double asteroid system. A lot of asteroids out there, what we call binaries, they have one body spinning along the other. This is one of those. The asteroid is called Didymos, D-I-D-Y-M-O-S. There's a big asteroid and then the little one. The little one is the moon. It's called Didymos B. A lot of us in the business call it Didymoon, but the official name is Didymos B.
Quinn: I love inside jokes.
Brian: That's so good.
KT Ramesh: But the idea is that the mission will essentially launch an impact of the mission itself, as an impact of that will hit this moon. What we can do is watch the orbit of the Moon around the asteroid of this Didymos B, the asteroids moving around the main asteroid. We should be able to see that orbit change because they hit, and we can measure how much that all the change. And so, that way we can measure how much of an impact of an effect we had, so this impact. Essentially, we're trying to change the momentum, and the ideas is in this case we can actually test the whole thing out. We are going to hit it at something like 6.5 kilometers per second to pretty fast. We, we're moving with a mass of, I don't know, it's about 600 kilograms, slightly less than 600 kilograms, something like that.
KT Ramesh: And so this entire thing is set up now. There is a motion that we hope will go along with it, that a little cube sats that will be launched along with the primary mission. The cubes that's actually being designed and built by the Italians. And the idea is that that will be standing off to the side where this thing hits and can give us some imagery of the actual event. And then there's a, with any luck, they'll be a followup mission that the Europeans will send up called hello [inaudible 00:42:31] that were broader and much later, and then look at the crater that was formed and so forth.
Quinn: Fascinating. So-
KT Ramesh: Yeah, I think this is going to be really good.
Quinn: Yeah, it certainly helps to have some actual tangible, tangible results. Good news is, is as you said, things are coming together better and more efficiently and more robustly. It doesn't seem like, at least entirely, it's a case of "Well we need to see what we're dealing with before we do anything." We do have some systems in place, which is great. Are there things I guess on the science side that we can plan for that will apply to most, or many if not all asteroids of sizes and speeds and timelines on the science side?
KT Ramesh: Absolutely. I think one of our big questions is what happens during the impact, just simulating the impact event itself. This turns out to be really hard to do. It's one of the things I do for a living. And the issue is this, most experiments we do in the lab, these are lab scale, these are the kinds of things I can hold in my hand and then I shoot at it. But now we're going to go up to an asteroid and this thing is the size of the building or bigger. How do we know that what happens in the lab will apply to what happens on that asteroid? And the answer is, "Well, we do experiments like the dot mission. Oh and then we have to do simulations and try to predict what's going to happen. So that's what we do.
KT Ramesh: And I think real investment and that science is something that a lot of countries are thinking about or working on beause part of the problem, like you said somewhat when we began this, is really the question of what are the asteroids made of? And we don't really have a good sense of that. So part of something that would be really useful for us is to get pieces of asteroids back. There are a couple of missions that are doing that right now. One is Hayabusa 2 at the asteroids [inaudible 00:44:25] the other is a [inaudible 00:44:27]. Both of those are going to come back with pieces. We're going to be able to look at that, we get a better sense then of what the asteroids are like. And then be able to use that to estimate what's going to happen when we impact them.
KT Ramesh: There's sort of this interesting place in the field, where you tend to think every astroid out there has been hit so many times or over the eons, that it's been fractured many times, and then it's pulled back together and held by gravity. The question is how strong is that thing? Is it just a collection of dust that's being held together?
Quinn: That would be great.
KT Ramesh: Yeah. That would be easy to move maybe. Maybe but maybe not. If you try and move it, maybe it just goes poof. The other side of it is, how consistent are these things? Are we likely to find most of them are one way, and the few are solid rock. Most of them basaltic versus other types. We have some sense of that using spectral observation. Basically, you can look at them in telescopes and say, "Oh good." But there's a lot that you really can't get until you get a piece of it one that actually had something. I think that science is the really important stuff.
KT Ramesh: And I think NASA's DART mission, that will be the first measure to actually do Planetary Defense, the first mission to actually measure the asteroid deflection and really give us a close up view of a binary system. I'm hopeful for a great deal admission.
Quinn: Yeah, hope was probably the word I'd use as well.
Brian: A pretty bid deal.
Quinn: KT, it seems like for the most part, we're pretty prepared and we have a good grip grip on this. But here must be some obstacles, some things that are frustrating to you and if scientists. Can you talk about those?
KT Ramesh: Sure.
Quinn: Process wise or science wise besides what we just don't know.
KT Ramesh: There's obviously things we don't know. Things that are coming from the sun noon side, things that are coming, things like that. I would say broadly speaking, we really need to be investing a little bit more in detection of things and characterizing them when they're far away. So I think that scenario where we need to invest more effort generally. We're suddenly investing more than we were 20 years ago, but our understanding of the risk has gotten bigger and so, we need to be more aware of it. I think that's one area. There's another, which is just communication. So if you have something like, it's happening, that happens suddenly. We didn't know it was going to happen. We were actually looking at something else when that thing came in, and just ensuring that there's enough communication among governments that nobody sees something like that as a threat, that kind of thing is important too.
Quinn: And that was because that was too small. Right?
KT Ramesh: That's right. That was just a small. And well, it was coming from the sun west side? That was one reason it was hard to see. But I think this whole business of doing the science of both the impact event and the fragmentation process, and being to communicate risk to people and the governments. I think that's really the important place. I think that's an area I'd like to see more investment of people. It's not just money, it's people actually deciding this is important for us to understand. We are as a civilization, much more exposed than we were 200 years ago, because we cover much more of the globe. [inaudible 00:47:51]
Quinn: Well, we're using such interconnected systems. We talk about solar flares all the time, but a real Cornell injection. What would that do to our electric grid and GPS and things like that? We've become so reliant on these amazing technologies that are connected and all of that, but boy, we could be in the dark ages real fast. I guess on that topic before we move into action steps here, you talk about we wish we had more people that cared and can put more effort into it. There are, and this is a lot of what we talk about, we also tried to cover good news things.
Quinn: But there are a lot of figurative and literal fires to put out these days. I can empathize with folks feeling like, "Look, KT said there's no current killer asteroid coming." Can we just put that on the back burner while we save democracy and sea level rise, and urban heat, and bad water and bad air, etc, etc." I definitely see both sides of that. At the same time, we would really feel like assholes if all of a sudden we just were not prepared for this. But how many people ... you say you'd like more people involved in a more of a focus. How many people like you and like the NASA planetary defense and European Space Agency are there actually actively working on this stuff?
KT Ramesh: Yeah, that's a good question. Hard to get really good numbers. But I'd say a couple of thousands, a few thousands. The question of how active some people might be doing it occasionally. Another is focused on this. So a couple of thousand, let's say. Your point about risk I think is really important one. You've got a variety of things that we ought to be wondering about as a civilization. Some of them are near term, some of them are long term issues that, you have two things in the near term to take care of the long term. And some of them are the kinds of issues were you guys remember how people talk about risk, right?
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KT Ramesh: That's a probability of an event, and then there's the consequences of the event happening, and you take the product of those two, and that's a really good measure of risk. So, this business of astroid, for instance, it's a very low probability of that. But if it does happen, it's a very high consequence of that, and that's why the risk is high. And so, for those kinds of things, what you really need is in depth studies, so that you understand what that risk is. You can categorize it, be able to respond quickly when you need to. That's the way in which I would look at this. If you tried to do it only when the event shows up, you're not going to have enough time to respond. Well, that's true of a lot of other major risks that we have too, climate change being one of them.
Quinn: Sure. That's another one we've done a poor job on. It'd be great if one of these things went well. Let's get into more action-oriented stuff here, just to try to close this out. How can our listeners become better and more, I guess, frequently informed knowing nothing is coming, we've said that a hundred times about our progress and our options without turning into conspiracy nuts with tin foil on their heads. Are there specific resources or places to pay attention to? I mean, obviously we'll talk about it whenever there's something pertinent like the conference, but I'm curious if there's more firsthand knowledge.
KT Ramesh: Yeah. There's a lot that still poorly managed by the pantry defense coordination office that NASA has. I think that's a really good place to go. A number of labs that spend a significant effort on this kind of thing. The Johns Hopkins, APL, the Applied Physics Lab is one, JPL is another. There are a number of websites like that that you could go to that will give you current inflammation. NASA runs or neat little website that shows all the current any ills that are out there. You can go look at that objects that is ... I think there's a lot of information that comes through the science community that is designed to be consumed by the public. And I think that's certainly the first place I'd go for that.
KT Ramesh: I do from my experience as a little bit ... It's easy for some in the media to move very quickly towards trying to sensationalize threat, and I'm very cautious about the said much so that people just think of this in terms of awareness of potential risk rather than thinking in terms of threats per se. So yeah, I think NASA is the place to start on these. So NASA, APL, JPL, that's where I'd go.
Brian: Okay, great. Awesome. Excellent. So I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, our goal here is to provide a specific action steps that our listeners can take to support you and what you do with their voice, their vote, and their dollar. So let's just get into that a little bit. How can our listeners support you with their voice?
Quinn: One of the things they should be, I guess, again, action oriented questions we find helpful, what are the things you should be asking for instance of their representatives?
KT Ramesh: First, I would say something that would back up a little bit from their voice.
KT Ramesh: I'd just like to see people ... I think people should be more engaged with the world around them just in terms of absolving what's there. Even at the very simple level of getting out there on the night and looking up and just look at the stars and see what they're like. Just get a feel for the environment we live in, because that is the environment we live in. That is the space environment and that's what we're thinking about. The question of it ought to be on everybody's bucket list to see the Milky Way at least once. I think that gives you a sense of perspective about the things that we do or not. That's one side. Going to the voice question. I guess it's okay for us to be opinionated on this kind of show, I suppose.
KT Ramesh: I guess my sense is, I'd really like to see folks talk a little bit more to the representatives about the need to support the fundamental side of science. I think by and large, the American public in particular is very comfortable with the idea that technology is important, and it has an impact and so forth, and it absolutely does, but there's a fundamental side to this where we have to understand the basics. Sometimes the output of that kind of science takes a long time before it gets technology. It might be 20 years, 30 years out, but it's really important to do that. There's a really nice line in that movie about the Higgs Boson, and I forgot the name of the movie, it's really nice line. That was somebody asks the astronomers, "Why you're looking at this?" and he points out that when radio waves were first invented, or were first discovered, they weren't called radio waves because nobody had radios. Right?
Quinn: That's right.
KT Ramesh: I think there's a lot that you do in the basic sciences that has very good back down the line. And I'd like to see people ask their representatives to continue to support the basic science. That's really what keeps us ahead of everything else. So you could think of it in terms of national competition, that's certainly true. But even as humanity in terms of the impact you're having on the world, keeping us ahead of that, I think that basic science investments really important. And voting, vote by your heart, and so I think that's the way to do it.
Quinn: I guess that ties into anything specific they should do with their dollar, besides pay their taxes and then tell the representatives what to do with it. Are there any private groups or NGOs or labs or anything like that where they can send their hard earned money, things like that?
KT Ramesh: Yeah. Well, I'd certainly like it if people wanted to support my institute, but that would be a little parochial. I guess the thing I would say, I really believe in supporting young people who try to pick up science and who are interested in it, so I'd really invest in your school systems and the folks who really look at the teaching of science getting better cross. We seem to be moving a little bit away from it in terms of the broad [opolis 00:56:02] I think we're becoming too selective. We need a broader willingness to engage on the science front. So that's where I'd invest in our local school system, in your local library, on the science side of things.
Quinn: I love that. And yeah, we are moving away from those things in it is pretty frustrating.
Brian: Dr., this has been incredible.
Quinn: We're going to bring this thing home here if you're good with that. We have a lightning round, not really lightening round, just the last few questions here to bring it home. When was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
KT Ramesh: Oh, that's tough. First in my life. Oh, boy. Actually, something that sticks out.
KT Ramesh: I guess really when I got into this whole business of trying to do things with my own hands, so I was trying to do experiments when I was starting out as a graduate student. I grew up as a person who could do math, but I could never build anything. And then the first time when I realized that you could actually put things together and make something happen, I remember at that time I was working with the laser, and the laser didn't work. And there was this moment in time when I walked through all the pieces, and I realized that all those equations meant something and every [inaudible 00:57:26] was affecting it and I could actually make something happen. That to me, was big.
KT Ramesh: I got to realization that there are these fundamentals that come together and you can build really effective technology. For me, that was a big one, because I'm very much a tech bluff.
Quinn: Sure, sure. That's awesome. Professor, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
KT Ramesh: six months? Thanks. I guess for me it's really that is my students, my graduate students. These are the folks that, we get to talk about things, but the Grad students do all the work. That's how life is in an American University. I got a chance to talk about what they've done, but for instance though, the work you were talking about the media, that was my Graduate students also [mayor 00:58:16]. I've had a number of these students who graduated, that has got their PhDs in the last year or so. I think they have had a big impact on where we are. Charles is a good example. Without a simulation capability developed, we'd never have realized how important that gravitation piece was.
Quinn: Sure, sure. It's amazing how something like that can paint a picture.
Brian: KT, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
KT Ramesh: I did my telescope out and I go look at the stars.
Quinn: Good answer. Thought about getting my kids to start or telescope here soon. We don't see a lot in the bowels of Los Angeles, just a little bit of light pollution here. But when our summers on the East Coasts provide us a little more of a clear sky. So I just to see them, and they love space documentaries and planet earth and all those things. So, to give them the real experience I think would be pretty exciting.
Brian: A couple of years ago is the first time I ever saw the moon through a telescope. The moon is my favorite thing maybe in the world, and just with the naked eye and seeing it in the telescope. I mean I was just in shock.
Quinn: The new Apollo 11 documentary is pretty tremendous for that. I took my kid to see that in the theater, and you realize like, "Oh, we've seen Apollo 13 and first man that came out this year. It's tremendous." But seeing the actual footage from that, from zero days they're landing was just yeah, it's pretty incredible.
Brian: Wow. All right. And how do you consume the news?
KT Ramesh: Oh, I'm almost entirely online and basically Jews apps, I guess so. But I'm basically, I look at newspapers online. That's really what the way I get my news. I'm not much of a social media person.
Quinn: That's probably a good idea for everyone involved.
Brian: KT, if you could Amazon prime one book to Donald Trump, what would that book be?
KT Ramesh: Okay.
Brian: We're going to add it to our list.
KT Ramesh: Oh, you will. You'll actually add it to a list that ...
Brian: We have an actual list of books that any of our listeners can choose off of our Amazon list and send right to the White House.
Quinn: We've gotten quite the range, so anything.
KT Ramesh: That's cool. Well, I would say something that for every president, or certainly for this one, there's a really nice book by this woman named Jill Lapore, it's called These Truths. It's about the history of the United States, and it's beautifully written, and it's a fun read and really deep. That's what I'd recommend, These Truths.
Quinn: Awesome. Good one. Amazing. You just said you're not a big social media guy. Is there anywhere for listeners to follow you and your institute online just to keep up with all the fun shit you're doing?
KT Ramesh: Right. The institute is on Twitter and Facebook and all that.,That really would be the best way to do it. Or you can follow at HEMI on all of those. I myself, I'm really not much about social media person. I probably should be.
Quinn: Honestly, I would so much rather you spend your time doing what you're doing than for you to be on Twitter. "KT lost another day to a Twitter." That would be not helpful for mankind. Professor, we just want to say thank you so much for your time today and for all that you do. It just sounds super fun and awesome and constructive and practical and inspirational and all of those things. So, thank you.
KT Ramesh: Wow. Thank you. I really enjoyed this conversation and if you ever want to visit HEMI, please come on by. We have a lot of fun [inaudible 01:01:57]
Quinn: That might happen in the next few months. Yeah, that sounds pretty awesome.
Brian: Sounds incredible.
KT Ramesh: Sounds good, sounds good. Thanks a lot.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the Internet. You can find us on Twitter @importantnotimp, it's just so weird.
Quinn: Also on Facebook and Instagram at Important, Not Important.Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. And if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple podcasts to keep the lights on, thanks.
Quinn: Please, and you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, importantnotimportant.com. Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jam and music, t0 to all of you for listening. And finally, most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys.