Nuclear Weapons and Space Objects

May 2024
By William N. Faulkner

I enjoyed David Koplow’s investigation (“Planetary Defense: The Nuclear Option Against Asteroids,” April 2024) into the odd niche where planetary defense and nuclear weapons overlap. Deflecting space objects has been proposed as a potential use for nuclear weapons since the 1980s. Although I learned much from his legal analysis, I feel compelled to add context. The main steps of planetary defense proceed in a set order: detection, characterization, deflection, and mitigation. The first step, detecting the object and determining its size and orbit, is required for all of the rest. From this perspective, planning and testing deflection strategies, whether nuclear standoff explosions or kinetic impactors such as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, is putting the cart (deflection) before the horse (detection). 

Fortunately, two new U.S. observatories, the ground-based Vera Rubin in Chile and the space-based Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, should catalog nearly all the potentially hazardous objects in our solar system by the mid 2030s. The 2005 George E. Brown Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act legally required that NASA implement a near-earth object survey. Soon after, the quantitative completion and size thresholds of 90 percent of objects that are 140 meters or larger and are estimated to produce “regional” damage were specified in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Both projects enjoy bipartisan congressional support and received full funding for 2024. Vera Rubin should start operations this year; NEO Surveyor, in 2028.

I do not envision a near-term human society without nuclear weapons. But I feel that attention paid to the “nuclear option” in planetary defense can all too easily be construed as justification for maintaining the prestige, peaceful nature, and ultimate necessity of our nuclear arsenals’ mind-boggling destructive capacity. 

Those considering deflection should spend more effort promoting the economically efficient, scientifically sound, and drastically more ethically straightforward U.S. projects in detection: Vera Rubin and NEO Surveyor.

William N. Faulkner is director at Flux Research, Monitoring and Evaluation in New Orleans and co-Founder of Gulf Coast Eval Network.