In the 1998 space thriller Armageddon -- now ensconced in the American zeitgeist -- NASA turns to a veteran oil driller, played by Bruce Willis, to help blow apart an incoming asteroid before it can destroy life on Earth. Twenty years later, the U.S. government has a different plan for saving Earth from asteroids.

And last month, President Donald Trump told us about it.

Artist's rendering of a meteor exploding over a city in a flash of light.

A large meteor strike on Earth could be an extinction-level event -- and the government would like to avoid that. Image source: Getty Images.

What's the fuss?

Asteroid strikes have captured the public's attention as potential extinction-level events in recent years, but how big a deal is the asteroid threat, really?

According to U.S. government estimates, Earth is surrounded in space by some 10 million near-Earth objects (NEOs) of 20 meters or more in diameter. There are countless more NEOs of smaller size, and many that are larger (and thus more destructive). But to provide a bit of context, 20 meters was the size of the meteor (once an asteroid enters Earth's atmosphere, we call it a meteor) that exploded in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15, 2013. That explosion created an airburst releasing more than 20 times the energy released by the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima. 

So how big does that make the asteroid threat? Well, 10 million multiplied by 20 equals a total combined threat level about 200 million times bigger than Hiroshima -- which I'd say makes it pretty significant. Worse, the government laments that with current technology, it's almost impossible to detect asteroids 20 meters in diameter or smaller before they enter Earth's atmosphere. The Chelyabinsk meteor, for example, took Russia entirely by surprise.

Us versus the asteroids

The National Science and Technology Council's plan to deal with this threat -- technically called the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan -- was announced by President Trump's office on June 20, 2018.

This 23-page report details a 10-year plan to "improve our Nation's preparedness to address the hazard of NEO impacts." Basically, it breaks down into five key objectives:

  1. Improve our detection of asteroids that could threaten Earth.
  2. Improve our computer models to better predict whether a given asteroid will threaten Earth.
  3. Develop technologies to neutralize that threat.
  4. Increase international cooperation on points 1 through 3.
  5. And drill, baby, drill! (That is, conduct exercises to prepare to meet an NEO threat -- not drill holes and drop nuclear weapons into them.)

What it means to investors

All these objectives sound pretty good to me. Investors, however, might be best advised to focus particularly on the first and third objectives: improving asteroid detection and developing means to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.

Regarding asteroid detection, for example, NASA has been working to catalog asteroids exceeding one kilometer in diameter since as far back as 1998 -- probably not coincidentally, the year that Armageddon alerted many Americans to the threat. But NASA has fallen far behind schedule on its initial goal, which was to start with these mega space rocks and work its way down to cataloging 90% of NEOs 140 meters in diameter or bigger by 2005.

To get back on track, and expand its scope to cataloging at least all asteroids as small as 50 meters in diameter (i.e., still more than twice the size of the space rock that rattled Chelyabinsk), the government's plan calls for new investments in telescope programs and technology improvements. It also calls for better use of existing telescope assets, and better use of data processing technology to churn through the data we're already receiving today, to figure out what is an asteroid and what isn't.

This suggests there could be contract opportunities arising for companies engaged in telescope manufacture -- like PerkinElmer, which built the mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope; Lockheed Martin, which built the satellite that carries it; and Northrop Grumman, which is building the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope. And big data crunchers such as IBM, with its Watson AI system, could also benefit.

To defuse the threat of an NEO discovered to be on a collision course with Earth, the plan outlines two main solutions: destruction, presumably by nuclear strike as in Armageddon, or deflection, by sending out a spacecraft to rendezvous with an incoming asteroid and nudge its course away from Earth.

Given sufficient warning, both such solutions would be facilitated by dispatching spacecraft to first reconnoiter an incoming asteroid and confirm its orbital path, its composition (mostly water? or solid iron?), and other attributes. Here, essentially the entire American space and defense industry could play roles in providing spacecraft needed for these missions -- everyone from tiny start-ups like Planetary Resources to more established up-and-comers like SpaceX, to giant nuclear missile makers like Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop.

How much could this effort cost? The plan doesn't expressly request more funds from Congress for asteroid defense, and at present, the funding NASA has requested for "planetary defense" against asteroids is minuscule relative to the potential damage of a large meteor strike -- just $150 million allocated for fiscal 2019.

That was before the president announced the plan, however, and fully described what's at stake. As the plan concludes: "NEO impacts pose a significant and complex risk to both human life and critical infrastructure, and have the potential to cause substantial and possibly even unparalleled economic and environmental harm."

In establishing what it calls a "road map for a collaborative and federally coordinated approach to developing effective technologies, policies, practices, and procedures for decreasing U.S. and global vulnerability to NEO impacts," this plan is the first step toward a bigger effort to defend the Earth from asteroids -- and a strong case for getting Congress to pay up for that defense.