Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Delightful Cosmic Coincidence

The delightful "cosmic coincidence" between the Chelyabinsk meteor that produced widespread damage in Russia on February 15, 2013, just 16 hours before the closest pass to Earth of one of the more sizable asteroids known in history, has created a lot of "buzz" involving a lot of wild speculation despite authorities assuring us that the two events were independent.

It is rational to engage in otherwise "wild" speculation about possible explanations of a "coincidence" when two conditions are met:

1) The coincidence is between two events of possibly profound consequence.

2) The "odds" of the theories being batted around are at least as likely to be true as the "odds" of such a "coincidence".

There is a branch of mathematics taught at Ivy league business schools such as Harvard University called "decision theory" that does simple arithmetic to make investments of resources in exploring theories in just such a rational manner. The idea is that you have to take into account not only the probability of something, but its value in determining how much to invest in finding out more about it. A classic example is deciding how much to invest in mining assays of potential ore deposits before it makes no sense to pay attention to a potential mining site.

Regarding #1 (the value) we can certainly say that an asteroid impact on Earth results in a very large amount of damage ranging anywhere from a low yield nuclear bomb to the extinction of most major life forms, as has happened throughout the geologic history of Earth.

But what about #2: The odds of such a "coincidence"? How can we estimate those odds so that we can discount #1 rationally and not waste resources prospecting theories that are simply, themselves, too improbable?

Well, we have two statistically similar events, each with its own "probability" of occurring on average about once a century, give or take.

First of all, the correct treatment is as a Poisson process:


P is the probability
k = the number of times the rare event occurs
λ= the rate per unit time
t= the time interval over which the k rare events occur

  1. The Chelyabinsk meteor and the 2012 DA events are statistically similar events.
  2. These events occur roughly every 100 years.
  3. Our unit of time is 1 hour.
  4. A human lifetime is 80 years.

1 / ([100 * year] / [1 * hour])
= 0.0000011415525
= 0.00001826484
([e^-0.00001826484] * [0.00001826484^2]) / 2
= 1.6679914E-10

So, the odds of any particular 16 hour interval experiencing 2 of these rare events is about:

1/1.6679914E-10 1 / 1.6679914E-10 = 5.9952347E9
1 in 6 billion
So in an 80 year "generation" the odds of experiencing such a coincidence is:

1 - ([1 - 1.6679914E-10]^[{80 * year} / {16 * hour}])
= 0.0000073057752
1 / 0.0000073057752
= 136878.01

about 1 in a hundred thousand.

What a delightfully improbable coincidence to have been alive to witness an event of such quasi-eschatological impact! (Forgive my pun.)

Before I get into talking about the most plausible theory I have come up with to explain the otherwise delightful coincidence of February 15, 2013 between the close Earth flyby of an asteroid and the largest meteor entry to Earth's atmosphere in over a century -- both at mutually independent vectors -- I want to talk a little about another delightful coincidence:

While working at Science Applications International Corporoation's Roselle St. offices in Sorrento Valley of La Jolla, CA during the Reagan administration's "Star Wars" project, I would frequently receive mail addressed to a prior occupant of my office there: Peter Vajk. You might recall Peter Vajk as the author of "Doomsday Has Been Cancelled" in which he modified the Club of Rome's dynamical global model to incorporate non-terrestrial resources. In 1974, I wrote the first multiplayer 3D virtual reality (first person shooter) game called "spasim" in which I concocted a set of differential equations doing a mock up of the Club of Rome's model and the major theme of the game was the acquisition of nonterrestrial resources to keep the planet's population from going into revolt over terrestrial limits to growth. Vajk did his first work in this area in 1975. Oh but the delightful coincidence doesn't end there, because every day on my way to the industrial assembly area next door where I was managing the production of control software for an automated ordnance inspection system, I would walk past the Strategic Defense Initiative bays where, among other things, there were some rather impressive structures, presumably intended for orbital operation such as a very light-weight but powerful Van de Graaff generator intended to power who-knows-what.

I bring up this delightful coincidence because my early involvement with Gerard O'Neill's Space Studies Institute as Senior Associate 401 (right behind Ronald Reagan's membership number of 400) made me aware of an apparent disconnect between the DoE's solar power satellite studies and those of the non-terrestrial materials strategy popularized by O'Neill and Vajk: Not one of the studies of solar power satellites conducted by the major players such as the DoE even attempted a critical assessment of non-terrestrial materials studies. The citations were content-free dismissals. While we can chalk this up to a variety of bureaucratic characteristics, including conservatism or more simply bureaucratic stupidity, the events of February 15, 2013 lead me to suspect something more.

I had a bit of a hostile encounter with an old man who showed up at a space development conference in 1983 in San Francisco where I was representing Space Studies Institute and had designed their booth. Part of the booth was the book "The High Frontier" by Gerard O'Neill sitting next to the book "High Frontier" by Gen. Daniel Graham. Above the two books I had a sign that said "The Real Thing" and "Cheap Imitation" respectively. The old man walked up, his finger shaking in rage at the book by Gen. Daniel Graham and said, "This book could save this county!" I merely looked at him and told him that O'Neill's book had come out before Graham's and that Graham's didn't focus on the economics. The old man, still shaking, asked "Do you know who I am?" as he opened Graham's book and pointed to the name of the person who wrote the preface: "Robert Heinlein" at which point I merely looked him in the eye and said nothing with an expression saying "...and?..." He added, "There is no copyright on book title." I told him that Space Studies Institute had service marked ¨High Frontier" and that Graham had used it without permission. Heinlein then said simply, "I don't believe you." and walked off in a huff.

Heinlein, as you may recall from "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", described a space-based kinetic energy weapon which, although of limited capacity, was of sufficient capacity to bluff a super power into submission.

Just one more thing before I get to the events of February 15, 2013:
A private company has now formed called "Planetary Resources" which is enjoying not only a lot of positive press, but substantial and prestigious financing and they are utilizing declassified spy satellite technology to prospect for Earth-approaching asteroids. As you are well aware, spy satellites technology has been far more advanced for a far longer time than has been openly acknowledged -- except perhaps by rumor -- and it is certainly the case that these technologies were being dramatically advanced and deployed during the Reagan administration.

So, now WHAT IF:

The limited military utility of tactical nuclear weapons was seen as mitigated by using kinetic energy weapons of similar yield?

The use of space-based kinetic energy weapons of high yield could be plausibly denied as "acts of god" only so long as the existence of such a weapons program was kept so secret that not even rumors of its existence leaked?

The potential value of such a plausibly-deniable, non-nuclear weapon system -- with potential high impact propaganda "Acts of God" on populations such as Islamics or American Christian Zionists -- was so great as to motivate massive military black project investment as early as the Reagan Administration if not the 70s?

The spy satellite technologies were, during this era, turned toward a comprehensive assay of low delta-v asteroids, including large meteoroids for use in such weapons?

The Department of Energy, being intimately involved in the execution of nuclear weapons policy, might have a conflict of interest in accurately reporting the potential of nonterrestrial materials in the construction of solar power satellites, as space-based kinetic energy weapons using nonterrestrial materials were being developed?

The near-earth flyby of the asteroid, now called 2012 DA14, was actually known well in advance of the amateurs -- indeed long enough in advance that a much smaller meteor could be vectored into a shallow-angle atmospheric entry over Russia to coincide with the asteroid flyby?

Perhaps without even any control over 2012 DA2012, the motive of concocting such a coincidence would be to telegraph a message to intelligence agencies that "You will notice we sent the asteroid's little brother in a controlled shallow-angle entry. Think what we could have done? Notice, also, how we've made your politicians who posit a US weapon system look like baffoons -- we still possess plausible deniability hiding behind an "act of God" propaganda." This has the Heinleinesque feature that it may be a bluff based on a very limited capacity to actually deliver such kinetic energy weapons from nonterrestrial resources -- a limit that would be very very difficult for adversaries to place reasonable error bars on.

The importance of the ABM and START treaties to this issue are that no one even conceived of limiting kinetic energy weapons as replacements for nuclear warheads.

To commemorate the signing of the START I treaty -- which may well have given impetus to find non-nuclear energetic weapons of mass destruction -- on July 31, 1991, the House Subcommittee on Space held hearings on space commercialization. During those hearings I gave testimony.on legislation my coalition had promoted to privatize space launch systems. Then I became Vice President for Public Affairs at E'Prime Aerospace, which had been given license by the Bush Administration to take control of the Peace Keeper Missle production lines for the purpose of turning them to commercial launch services by adapting the MIRV upper stage with a geostationary orbital system.

The dramatic reduction of MIRVs in the strategic arsenal, on the very day that I testified, freed up a lot of resources.

Finally, I'd point out that John Pike, as recently as 2004, was quoted in Popular Science as saying that a space-based kinetic energy kill weapon called "God's Rod" was unfeasible because of the high launch costs from earth. John Pike, as I recall from the Reagan Administration era, was the same guy who was referred to as "the expert" by popular press accounts of the unfeasibility of solar power satellites due to launch costs.

If, as I posit, there already existed a space-based kinetic energy weapon utilizing nonterrestrial resources at the time John Pike wrote his dismissal, why would anyone be interested in developing a weapon like "God's Rod"? Well, perhaps they aren't really interested in it.... perhaps it is just a diversion/cover On the other hand, there is a very good reason for wanting a weapon like "God's Rod" over a kinetic energy weapon that requires years of set up time for targeting:

Tactical, as opposed to strategic, utility.

So, to wrap up this second part of the story we are now in a position to estimate the probability of this theory and whether it is as least as probable as being alive during a 1 in a hundred thousand 80 year lifespan.

It boils down to this: The least plausible aspect of this theory (the weakest link in the inferential chain) is that a government possessing ample means, motive and opportunity, could actually pull off a black project spanning 2 decades with funding of on the order of a few tens of billions of dollars (at most). Does this stand a chance of at least 1 in a hundred thousand?

PS: There is also the delightful coincidence of my walking into Memex Corp. for the first time and having the 3-way exchange between Gary Olsen, Keith Henson and myself of "What are YOU doing here???" as we had all known each other for 15 years as being leaders of the nonterrestrial materials use advocacy.