The Crowdfunding Campaign to Build a Nuclear Asteroid-Blasting Spaceship

The Emergency Asteroid Defence Project is looking for $200,000, to start with.

May 14 2015, 2:25pm

Image: NASA/Wikimedia

When governments refuse to take earthbound asteroid threats seriously, what do you do? Why not try crowdfunding a private project to build a nuclear explosive-laden spacecraft that will deflect the ones that might annihilate us?

"It's a crazy endeavour," Professor Bong Wie, founding director of the Asteroid Deflection Research Centre at Iowa State University, told me over the phone. "This kind of initiative should have been done by government agencies, not the people. [Governments], however, aren't taking this threat seriously."

Wie is one of the people behind the "Help Defend Earth Against Asteroid Threats" Indiegogo campaign, which was launched by international NGO Emergency Asteroid Defence Project (EADP) yesterday and is looking to raise $200,000. It aims to protect Earth from rogue asteroids by building a "hypervelocity asteroid intercept vehicle" (HAIV). This is a small spacecraft that promises to "deflect or disperse asteroids and comets" at short notice.

The project page explains that "no definitive solution" to the asteroid threat has been found by scientists or government agencies to date. It cites the US Congress asking NASA to come up with an anti-asteroid strategy in 2005, a program that was deemed lacking in 2014 due to a shortage of funding and resources.

Not to be defeated by government apathy, EADP has turned to people power to get its own defense mission rolling. The goal is to raise funds to build and test the HAIV, which will eventually hitch a ride on another spacebound vehicle. Once in space, EADP wants HAIV to strike and deliver an NED (nuclear explosive device) into the asteroid, dissipating it into harmless fragments.

If all goes to plan, they'll start the HAIV's technical designs in July 2015, and start building the thing in October 2015. It all seems a bit optimistic with just $200,000, so I reached out to entrepreneur and EADP founder Soren Ole Ekelund for an explainer on some of the logistics.

A 3D model of the HAIV. Image: EADP/Indiegogo

Ekelund explained that EADP based its project on Wie's three-year NASA funded asteroid defense mission research project. In a nutshell, Wie basically concluded in this study that if we have to take out an incoming asteroid at short notice, we'd have to use nuclear options.

The main problem, said Ekelund, largely lies in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prevents government agencies from planning, using and testing any kind of nuclear weapons in space. But he added that nation states could break the treaty if they're faced with a situation where many people would be at risk.

"What we'd be aiming to do is provide the HAIV spacecraft to nation states so that they can launch it together with a nuclear warhead and strike the asteroid," Ekelund told me.

As the spacecraft takes 18 months to build, Ekelund stressed that if an asteroid were to strike Paris in a month, for example, right now there'd be nothing they could do about it. By having a set of blueprints made up, he hopes to be more ready in the face of an imminent asteroid threat.

"You should actually be more afraid of asteroids than terrorists."

In the long run, Ekelund admitted that $200,000 dollars would only cover the development phase of the project. He said that they'd need at least $25 million to complete the mission, and that, ultimately, the group didn't expect that to come out of our pockets. After two days, the crowdfunding campaign has raised just over $4,000.

Ekelund speculated that if enough funds were raised through Indiegogo, EADP would be able to reach out to billionaires and insurance companies for more funds to actually get the HAIV built.

As for eventually launching HAIV into space, Ekelund explained that as it measures three meters in length and weighs in at only 200 kg, it could hitch what's known as a "free ride" into space. "When NASA and SpaceX send up rockets to space, they often have some payload left that you can use. That's called a 'free ride', and it's usually used by universities for their science projects," he explained. "When we have the mission ready, and know which asteroid to strike with the test mission, we can get it sent out there for free as the spacecraft is so small."

But getting the public to understand the gravity of asteroid threats, he said, was a challenge. "Terrorist threats are statistically smaller than asteroid threats. So you should actually be more afraid of asteroids than terrorists," said Ekelund.

Ultimately, the crowdfunding campaign aims to raise the public's awareness on planetary defense, and according to Ekelund, contributing is like paying into a collective insurance policy. "This problem doesn't just concern one person on earth, it's an issue that's relevant to all of us," he said. "It's like you're buying insurance not just for you, but for all of us on earth."