Defending the Earth from Asteroids – Danica Remy (POY 31)

Defending the Earth from Asteroids - Danica Remy (POY 31)

Danica Remy is the COO at B612, an organization out to detect and deflect asteroids before they can impact the Earth. Here she shares their unique mission.

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Episode Summary

  • Danica Remy is the Chief Operating Officer at the B612 Foundation, a Silicon Valley organization dedicated to detecting and deflecting asteroids before they can impact the Earth.
  • Previously, Danica has served as an executive for tech companies and nonprofits. She never expected to work in planetary defense, but she came on board after meeting Apollo 9 astronaut and B612 co-founder Rusty Schweickart.
  • B612 has designed two tech-based solutions toward asteroid detection and deflection: a telescope called Sentinel and a gravity tractor system.
  • Danica likes that her position allows her to work directly with others in solving a global problem. With that in mind, she also co-founded Asteroid Day to raise asteroid awareness worldwide.

Guest Links

Danica Remy

The B612 Foundation

Asteroid Day

Transcript

This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

Danica Remy is the Chief Operating Officer at the B612 Foundation, an organization based in Silicon Valley. B612 is dedicated to discovering asteroids and then deflecting them before they can impact the Earth. I talked with Danica about B612’s mission, how she got involved, and about Asteroid Day, a holiday that she co-founded in 2015 to raise asteroid awareness.

I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Danica is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.

This is Episode 31. You can read along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/031.

Asteroid impacts make for interesting stories or movies, but in reality they can be pretty scary. I imagine most of us have seen photos or dash cam footage of objects falling from the sky in recent years. What surprises me after reading about asteroid activity is that events like these aren’t more common.

We seem to be super fortunate considering the sheer number of objects that surround us. According to data reported by NASA, we’ve discovered about 14,000 near-Earth objects so far. Those include asteroids that are at least 30 meters across or larger, and more are added every year as we find them. Roughly 13 percent of the objects found so far have been classified as potentially hazardous, meaning their orbits may be close enough within the next hundred years to impact our planet. I should emphasize those aren’t exact numbers—there are many more objects we haven’t detected yet. It’s tough to know exactly how many objects there are around us and how many might be hazardous due to current observation methods. That’s where an organization like B612 comes in.

B612 wants to push the field of asteroid detection and deflection forward. They’ve designed solutions to make these things happen, and I’ll let Danica describe those in a bit. See, this is one of those problems that seems so low-risk that we shouldn’t have to worry about it, but what will happen if we don’t pay attention? Like Danica says, asteroid impacts are the one type of natural disaster we can prevent, and thank goodness people like her have devoted themselves to watching the skies for the rest of us.

I talked with Danica recently via Skype. We had some technical trouble at first that cut our time short, but we both restarted our computers and that somehow fixed the problem. I’m just so humbled that she made time to talk with me. She’s the kind of person I want to help you learn about, and she’s been involved in so many other causes that we didn’t get a chance to discuss. If you’d like to learn more about her or about B612 or about asteroid awareness, I’ll put some links in the show notes at pluralofyou.org/031.

Here’s Danica Remy, COO at the B612 Foundation.

Interview with Danica Remy

JM: Hello. Can you hear me?

DR: Yep. Is this Take 10? [laughs]

JM: [laughs] Something like that. Thanks for being so patient about this, by the way.

DR: I’ve been around technology so long, it always tickles me that this stuff is possible. Every time I do something like this, talking on a phone through a speaker or browse the web, I’m still just amazed at how far we’ve come.

JM: How did you get involved with B612? Is this something you envisioned, that one day you’d be involved in planetary defense?

DR: Nope. My constant thread through my professional life and my area of interest has been technology. In the Eighties, I didn’t finish college. I built a computer that I ordered from the back of a catalog, and I was studying Computer Science. They wouldn’t let me do Directed Study on this thing called a personal computer. I said, “You know, that’s a revolution.”

I left and helped filmmakers use personal computers for almost a decade. Then I helped start this organization called Global Business Network. At that organization—this was in the late Eighties—that organization had a network of, quote, remarkable people. One of the remarkable people in that network was this guy by the name of Rusty Schweickart, who was an Apollo 9 Astronaut. I didn’t know anything about space, didn’t know much about astronauts. I went to meet him and show him how to get on this thing called The WELL, this online community where we were getting everyone to talk. That was, like, thirty some-odd years ago that he and I met.

I’ve had a career that went through a lot of technology companies. Then I spent a decade running a very large charity called Tides, Tides.org, Tides Foundation. When I left Tides, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I went to see Rusty and he said, “I started this organization,” and I would hear Rusty talk about asteroids over dinner conversation and at events. He was incredibly passionate about it.

He said, “I’m handing over the organization to someone I’ve been working with for the last ten years, Ed [Lu]. He wants to build a satellite.” I said, “Well, Rusty. I don’t know anything about that.” He goes, “That’s okay. He needs someone to help him build the organization.” That’s how I got to meet Ed. Ed’s an amazing person to work with and very passionate about this asteroid issue, and has been from the formation of B612 back in 2002.

The thread that runs through this asteroid issue is technology. The ability to solve for the problem will be delivered to us through science and through technology. Although I didn’t know anything about asteroids four years ago, I do have a deep belief in people’s ability to use technology to solve important problems. The asteroid problem is a little known problem, although I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the last four years articulating that it is a problem and there is a solution.

JM: Would you mind describing the problem? What I’m wondering is: what doesn’t the public know about asteroid activity or near-Earth objects, as I’ve seen [them] called sometimes?

DR: Yeah, near-Earth objects or near-Earth asteroids. We’ve been vocal and are working with the press to make the problem more understood. It’s one of those problems that’s really a long-term problem. If you can’t think in long time scales, you get a lot of questions about, “Well, how often is that going to happen?” “Why should I worry about it?”

JM: That’s what I naturally think about, to be honest.

DR: Yeah. There are a lot of problems in the world and it takes different people to help solve for those problems. What was interesting about the asteroid problem is it’s a problem that A. is pretty simple to solve if we knew they were coming, B. that we have the technology, and C. that the scientists generally don’t disagree that we know how to solve the problem. You don’t usually get those things lined up around big, global problems.

When I first stepped into B612, it was clear to me having done some of the preliminary research that those three factors were true. What drew me to it is that it’s a problem that, with the right community of people participating in it, generally could be solved by the time your kids get through college.

JM: This is one of those problems that seems relatively low-risk, but that risk is on such a thin line. If we don’t see something coming, we could have a serious problem in a matter of minutes. For instance, there’s the theory of how the dinosaurs went extinct, which is based on a single event. It’s not impossible for something like that to happen again.

DR: I would say that NASA has found 95 percent of the civilization ending sized asteroids. The really, really big ones like the one that took out the dinosaur, we know where the majority of those are. We’re not looking at this apocalyptic, end of the entire world scenario.

JM: You’re right. That’s a good point.

DR: The scenario we’re more looking at is regional devastation or localized devastation. For example, the asteroid that impacted and exploded outside of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, it was a very small asteroid, yet it did a fair bit of damage. It took out 100,000 windows, and sent 1,500 people to the hospital. If that asteroid had arrived just a few moments earlier, we most likely would have had more casualties. It was sheer luck.

If we have a way to find asteroids and we have a way to deflect them—deflection is actually easier than detection at this stage—why wouldn’t we do it? We care about earthquakes, we care about tsunamis, and we can’t do anything about those. With an asteroid, we could in theory do something about it. We know how to do it.

JM: What are some of those solutions that you mentioned?

DR: Scientists and engineers are clear that kinetic impact or running a small spacecraft into an asteroid—if we have [about ten to twenty years of warning], we’ll be able to adjust the orbit of that asteroid and potentially move it into a direction that would miss Earth.

The other solution is what’s called a gravity tractor. A small spacecraft, again ten to twenty years in advance of when it would be coming towards Earth, would hover near that asteroid. The gravity would gently tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit. We only need to adjust an asteroid’s orbit by about a quarter of an inch in order for it not to hit Earth.

JM: Oh, wow. That precise.

DR: Yeah but that’s over time. What we need is time. If we don’t know they’re coming, we don’t have the time to do a deflection mission.

JM: That’s where the satellite technology comes in, is that correct?

DR: [That’s where] survey technology comes in. The real problem right now is we don’t know where they are. That’s a discovery problem. At the current rate with the current technology available today, we’ve been finding about a thousand asteroids a year. We’ve found a total of 14,000 of them.

JM: What would be the current technology?

DR: The current technology are ground-based telescopes and some amateurs. Some of our larger telescopes are not developed to focus on asteroids. The two ones that are finding the most number of asteroids right now are the Catalina Sky Survey and Pan-STARRS in Hawaii.

The number that are being found isn’t making a dent in the total inventory. That’s why we co-created something called Asteroid Day. Part of Asteroid Day was a call to accelerate the discovery of asteroids by 100 times within the next decade. We’ve had a lot of amazing people sign on to the declaration saying that we do need to find them faster, and that it’s important for the long-term health and safety of humanity.

The good news is there’s another telescope coming online, a land-based telescope called LSST, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, that will be operational in Chile in 2021. Within a few years, LSST will have found a huge majority of the near-Earth asteroids. That’s good news. In a short while, there should be a lot of good data coming. It won’t be all of the asteroids, but it will be a significant factor of increase in terms of what we’ll find. LSST will probably find in the first week what we’ve found in all of history. It’ll be a formidable machine.

NASA has a proposed space telescope called NEOCam that is being considered for funding. [It] would be at L1, Lagrange 1 Point. It would do a survey, which would complement LSST to some degree. Then we have the telescope that we would propose called Sentinel, which would be in a different orbit than NEOCam. It would be in a Venus trailing orbit out by the Sun. We would have the benefit of being able to continually do the survey, and we’d be able to see more of the sky over time more rapidly.

We have the technology. The technology needs to be deployed. Right now, we’re hopeful NEOCam will get selected, and we know that LSST has been funded. We should see good data coming in the coming years.

JM: What is B612’s role in making all of these solutions possible?

DR: B612’s role, our mission, is to protect the planet from asteroid impacts. We’ve done that through science and technology, advocacy and education for the last fifteen years that the organization has been around. The organization was entirely volunteer for the first ten years. When we announced we were building Sentinel, we built up a small staff that has moved Sentinel forward, along with helping to engage a lot of the press. Ed’s out on the road a lot talking about asteroids and asteroid technology. We’re dedicated to this, it is our only mission.

In the early years, Ed and another astronaut developed the concept I shared with you called the gravity tractor. Ed and Rusty, who’s the person who got me into all of this, spent a lot of years advocating, talking to Congress, and talking to the press about the importance of this issue. We continue to do that today.

The role of B612 is not necessarily to build a spacecraft. The role of B612 is to be pushing the field forward, to help us get to that ultimate goal of protection from asteroids.

JM: Just to clarify, is the purpose behind B612 first and foremost to advocate for these solutions and to raise awareness?

DR: No, no. I’d put technology in front of advocacy and awareness. Sentinel is a proposed space mission with a full set of technical designs. We have an amazing partner in Ball Aerospace. There’s an entire mission that’s been designed around it. It is all technology in that sense on the Sentinel side. We’ve invested quite heavily in that. Likewise, Ed developed the gravity tractor, which is a critical tool from a deflection perspective.

We continue to invest in a variety of potential solutions on the technology side that could be beneficial to the planetary defense community.

JM: What is your role in the organization? What is a typical day like for you?

DR: Well, there is no typical day for me right now. [laughs] We wear many hats. I think I may wear more than most on the team. I serve as the Chief Operating Officer. In that role, I’m working on our various partnerships, I manage all of our board strategy, HR, finance, contracts. I helped co-found Asteroid Day, which is a global campaign for awareness about asteroids. A typical day could have me doing everything from talking with lawyers about contracts to wondering what should go into a newsletter about the latest asteroid news.

JM: What day is Asteroid Day?

DR: Asteroid Day is celebrated on June 30th every year.

JM: That’s coming up.

DR: Yep, it’s coming up. We selected June 30th because it’s the anniversary of the asteroid impact in Tunguska. It was a forty-five meter asteroid that wiped out an 800 square mile part of the Siberian forest in Russia.

Asteroid Day is about encouraging people all around the world to shine the spotlight on their asteroid scientists in engineering technology. Last year, we had about 160 events organized in forty-five countries all around the world.

JM: Wow! I had no idea.

DR: Yeah. The idea of Asteroid Day is [to] find the people in your community who know about asteroids, everything from characterization to detection to deflection to the origins of life. Find the people who are leading the science in your area and spend the day learning about them. We’ve built a massive set of resources at asteroidday.org along with some of our other partners.

It really is about locally organized events. There’s resources for anybody who wants to do a house party. You can watch some videos, take some quizzes. If you want to do a full program, there’s some longer-form, scientifically correct films you could share and discuss with your community. Make Asteroid Day your own in your local community.

JM: What makes you so passionate about planetary defense? What do you like about going into work every day?

DR: You know what I like about going into work every day? It’s what I said a little bit earlier: I appreciate the fact that we have a global problem and together we actually could solve this global problem. What’s missing is awareness about the problem and some breakthrough technologies to help solve for the problem. They aren’t really breakthrough technologies. In a lot of ways, it’s using what we already know and customizing it specifically to solve for this asteroid problem.

JM: Are you aware of any resources—I imagine your organization’s website is a good place to start as far as becoming more educated about these topics, but do you know off-hand where you could direct listeners to if they wanted to learn more about these issues?

DR: I think asteroidday.org is going to give your listeners a lot of good resources. B612 certainly. NASA’s got a NEO center on their website, at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Those would be the places I’d start. The European Space Agency has some good, general information. They’re the ones who, if their project is funded, may be doing a deflection demonstration mission later on this year.

The thing I’d say is that I’m excited to be part of something that is a global problem that I know humanity can solve.

JM: We’ve covered this as we’ve been talking, but if you had to summarize why people should care more about planetary defense and take it more seriously, would you have a sales pitch?

DR: It’s difficult because it’s a complicated. You could be high-level, which is [to say] let’s find them before they find us.

JM: That’s a good way of putting it.

DR: What’s important is that people know it is a problem, people know [there] is a solution, and that people know they need to advocate and solve the problem. It’s hard to line up this issue against the many other global issues and global problems that exist.

Where it strikes a chord of passion, I hope people will follow their passion. It’s going to be an amazing journey we go on as we find the asteroids and mount our first deflection demonstration campaign. There’s going to be a lot of exciting space adventures in the next ten years related to asteroids, but it isn’t necessarily everybody’s area of interest. If people are passionate, they should learn more.

JM: It does seem like the kind of project, sort of like our manned space flights in the Sixties—it could be a source of national or even international pride to see what humankind can accomplish together.

DR: We absolutely agree. It will be the next great space mission.

JM: If we wanted to follow B612 on social media, where would be the best place to do that?

DR: We’re on Facebook and Twitter. I would encourage folks to also follow Asteroid Day on Facebook and Twitter.

JM: And your website, that’s b612foundation.org. Is that correct?

DR: That’s correct.

JM: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?

DR: No. I’m sorry we had all of our technical hiccups. I would have enjoyed having a little more time for these other questions.

JM: That’s okay, I think we’ve covered a lot. I guess that’s all I have.

DR: Okay. Thank you so much, Josh. Josh, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you today.

JM: Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it, Danica.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

That was Danica Remy of the B612 Foundation. If you’d like to help Danica and B612 raise asteroid awareness, then here’s a homework assignment. Check out asteroidday.org to see if there are any events near you that you can get involved in. You can also follow the group on social media to keep up with the latest in asteroid news.

I’d also recommend making a donation at b612foundation.org, which you can do through PayPal, Amazon, or Bitcoin. The technologies that Danica mentioned are going to need a lot of support, and we can vote for what they’re doing with our wallets. I’m going to chip in what I can and I hope you will, too.

The Plural of You is a podcast produced by me, Josh Morgan, in beautiful Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.

If you’d like to say hello sometime, I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at pluralofyou, or you can email me at pluralofyou.org. You can also check the website to find show notes, subscribe to future episodes, or to get involved in dozens of other helpful causes.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.