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Will MacAskill discussing asteroids with Joe Rogan, starting around 1:24:00 in this recording

Rogan: When you think about how big that thing was, that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and that there are hundreds of thousands of those things floating around in space.
MacAskill: I was asking some people at NASA, just two days ago actually, how many of them we've managed to identify – cause they're serious about scanning the skies to find them all...
I thought we had it covered. I thought this was something where NASA was like "Yeah yeah, we know where all the earth-killers are."
And their response was like "No, we have no idea. We don't know how many of them are out there, and so we don't know [what proportion] we've managed to track."

That was in 2017. It cuts against this 2013 Open Phil report (a) which states:

Unlike other GCRs (e.g., nuclear war), asteroid risk is extremely quantifiable: scientists have estimated the number and size of near-earth asteroids and are able to track how many have been discovered.

I'm inclined to follow MacAskill here, as the Open Phil investigation is based on public sources and NASA may have incentive to overstate their handle on the problem in public-facing communications.

But I haven't looked into this closely. Has anyone in EA thought about asteroid risk, recently?

(It looks like this isn't totally neglected – the B612 Foundation was set up to "to protect Earth from asteroid impacts." I haven't poked them enough to know how good their stuff is.)




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Global Catastrophic Risks (now slightly outdated with a 2008 publication date) has a chapter on comets and asteroids.

It estimates that an impactor with a diameter of 1 or 2 kilometers would be "civilization-disrupting" and 10 kilometers would "have a good chance of causing the extinction of the human species". So that's what the "big" means in this context.

We can estimate the population of possible impactors via impact craters, telescopic searches and dynamical analysis. Using these techniques, "[i]t is generally thought that the total population of near-Earth asteroids over a kilometre across is about 1100." But there are other classes of impactors with greater uncertainty-comets and Damocloids. "Whether small, dark Damocloids, of, for example, 1 km diameter exist in abundance is unknown - they are in essence undiscoverable with current search programmes."

This sounds like a plausible reconciliation of the apparently conflicting claims. OpenPhil is specifically talking about near-earth asteroids where we do indeed have fairly accurate estimates. The NASA employee referenced by MacAskill may be referring to the larger class of all possible impactors where uncertainly is much greater.

Thanks, super helpful!

Do you happen to know how promising it could be to work on innovating on new methods of discovery and tracking things like Damocloids?

An unknown number of those guys being out there is scary :-/

No idea really. The chapter reports "The best chance for discovery of such [dark Damocloid] bodies would be through their thermal radiation around perihelion, using infrared instrumentation on the ground (Rivkin et al., 2005) or in satellites." Rivken et al. 2005 is here.

After reviewing the literature pretty extensively over the last several months for a related project (the risks of human-directed asteroids), it seems to me that there is a strong academic consensus that we've found most of the big ones (though definitely not all - and many people are working hard to create ways for us to find the rest). See this graphic for a good summary of our current status circa 2018: https://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2018/06/Asteroid_danger_explained

a strong academic consensus that we've found most of the big ones

Huh, including most dark Damocloids?

Epistemic status: I don't have a citation handy for the following arguments, so any reader should consider them merely the embedded beliefs of someone who has spent a significant amount of time studying the solar system and the risks of asteroids. No, I believe that dark Damocloids will be largely invisible (when they are far away from the sun) even to the new round of telescopes that are being deployed for surveying asteroids. They're very dark and (typically) very far away. Luckily, I think the consensus is that they're only a small portion of the risk. Most of the risk comes from the near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), since due to orbital mechanics they have many opportunities (~1 per year or so) to strike the Earth, while comets fly through the inner solar system extremely rarely. Thus, as we've moved towards finding all of the really big NEAs, we've moved very significantly towards knowing about the vast majority of the possible "civilization ending" or "mass extinction" events in our near future. There will still be a (very) long tail of real risk here due to objects like the Damocloids, but most of the natural risk of asteroids will be addressed if we completely understand the NEAs.

Don’t know much about this but I thought you could estimate a ballpark for the total frequency by looking at craters on moons and mars.

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