While generally risk of mass extinction is being considered as political subject and even served as source of a catchy name for one controversial political movements, the same can not be said about asteroid/comet impact. From purely scientific perspective the problem is low probability but real. That's exactly what caused extinction non-avian dinosaurs and suspect in case of other mass extinction.

The subject, at least in theory, should be perfect for media. There had been in last decade a case of a meteroide exploding with blast yield of a sizeable nuclear warhead (400kt-500kt), luckily on high altitude and over sparsely populated area. Moreover there were even block buster movies about averting such collision with nukes.

Why such low probability but technically speaking real threat, with supposedly high level of media hype potential, is generally not source of major political movements or protests?

[EDIT: The question is about why there is apparent lack of political movements related to this threat, and not what are coolheaded technocratic reaction to tackle this potential problem. To make clear distinction: with mad cow disease the issue was already mostly contained by veterinary agencies with zero public interest, when suddenly in media and politic discourse it become key breaking news. The question only covers the second part, concerning lack of political movements centred around this threat]

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    I dunno. It seems to enjoy a pretty robust political platform
    – Machavity
    Oct 25, 2019 at 16:07
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    In the UK, an MP called Lembit Opik (whose other claim to fame is that he was dating one of the Cheeky Girls expressed some concern about asteroid impacts. He was roundly decried by the media as a kook
    – Valorum
    Oct 25, 2019 at 18:00
  • @Valorum Brilliant, absolutely not mentioned piece of info. Could you elaborate a bit for purpose of an answer?
    – Shadow1024
    Oct 25, 2019 at 18:03
  • There's no one to blame and nothing we could do about it anyway. That's a zero currency movement with nothing to in-debt on or profit from.
    – Mazura
    Oct 26, 2019 at 1:39
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    If you compare the asteroid scare with the mad cow scare, the difference is that the beef industry could be painted as trying to deny the mad cow scare, and therefore the dreaded enemy against which a political movement could inveigh. There's no dreaded enemy in the asteroid scare. And that's why those who fear don't from a political movement. Oct 26, 2019 at 13:03

6 Answers 6


The scenario of an asteroid impact destroying life on Earth as we know it was actually a topic which got quite a lot of media attention in the late 90s. Disaster movies like Armageddon or Deep Impact reflect that sentiment.

The reason why this hysteria died down in the past years is because politics did actually take actions to assess the threat of potential of asteroid impacts. Multiple projects were funded to detect, catalog and track any small objects in the solar system which could get close to Earth. For example:

Together, these projects detected almost 20,000 near-Earth objects. Under 2000 of those are classified as "Potentially Hazardous", which means they have a non-zero chance to impact on the surface of Earth. But none was identified as a serious threat to life on Earth.

Because the research has shown that near earth asteroids are a much smaller threat than feared in the 90s, political movements which advocate for asteroid protection have lost traction.

If you have further questions on asteroid research and its results you might want to ask on Space Exploration Stack Exchange.

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    There's also ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, which is designed to detect incoming asteroids in the hours or days before they strike Earth - not enough time for an Armageddon-style mission, but enough time to evacuate any populated areas that the asteroid might hit.
    – F1Krazy
    Oct 25, 2019 at 10:07
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    “Because the research has shown that...political movements...have lost traction.” Hm, that seems to be quite an optimistic view on what influence science has on political thinking! Oct 28, 2019 at 12:54
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    @leftaroundabout It is always easier to follow scientific advise which says you should relax and keep doing what you are doing than to follow scientific advise which says you should be worried and take action or change your world view.
    – Philipp
    Oct 28, 2019 at 13:18

The Chelyabinsk meteor indeed came as a surprise. To quote the linked Wikipedia article:

The object was undetected before its atmospheric entry, in part because its radiant was close to the Sun.

The Chelyabinsk meteor was approximately 20 m in diameter.

Back in 1908, a similar but more devastating event was recorded in Siberia. It

flattened 2,000 square kilometres (770 square miles) of forest, and caused at least three human casualties.

Various estimates yielded sizes for the impacting meteor between 50 and 190 m.

For comparison, the object that impacted to cause the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs is estimated to be anywhere between 11 and 81 km—500 to 1000 times the size of the meteors of Chelyabinsk and the Tunguska event.

The movement of stars and other celestial objects has been studied since the ancient times and since Keplar we have been very good at calculating future planetarian movement based on past observations—to the point where inconsistencies between calculation and observation led to the discovery of another planet. Currently, we are able to look more closely and deeper into space than ever before and we have a very good understanding of the celestial bodies that surround us, even though they may still escape our attention (see the first sentence).

Should there be a celestial body threatening to impact Earth with a result similar to that of Chicxulub, there is an extremely high chance that it would be discovered and detected by multiple satellites and telescopes and its path calculated at least months but probably years before the event. In fact just 16 hours after the Chelyabinsk event, another asteroid passed Earth within 5 Earth radii; an event which was duly predicted by astronomers (the two were unrelated).

As of currently, no astronomers are raising alarm that an object is due to impact Earth in a way as devastating as the question seems to suggest. It is generally known that we can predict the movement of celestial bodies. Therefore, the general public and politics have no need for concern and there are no significant movements. Astronomers will, such is the expectation, duly warn if any such danger should materialise.

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    In which place am I supposedly suggesting that we have any object DETECTED to be on collision course? I'm pointing only potential risk that we have plenty of evidence that such impact generally happen. When Oumuamua was detected it was already 0.22 AU from Earth with speed of ~50km/s. Had it been on collision course, there would be a week to impact.
    – Shadow1024
    Oct 25, 2019 at 11:03
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    @Shadow1024 There may be a misunderstanding here. If the sentence you are referring to is ‘that an object is due to impact Earth in such a devastating way as you suggest’, I intended it to be parsed ‘an object is due to impact Earth (in such a devastating way as you suggest)’—I understand your question as suggesting devastating impacts. // As for extrasolar objects such as Oumuamua, they do indeed represent a hole in my chain of logic; my understanding is that they are much rarer and less likely to impact than objects of the Solar System.
    – Jan
    Oct 25, 2019 at 11:13
  • A recent estimate of Tunguska-level events puts it at one every few millennia, although there's a lot of uncertainty because few data points exist. Oct 25, 2019 at 12:08
  • @Fizz I took my estimates straight from the corresponding Wikipedia pages.
    – Jan
    Oct 25, 2019 at 12:15
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    Actually 125000000 to 1000000000 times the size, since it's 500 to 1000 times the radius. Oct 25, 2019 at 21:26

My guess - and I think any "answer" can be only that - is that it's simply not political. If you start a political movement against (just to pick something completely at random :-)) global warming, you have a handy set of humans - oil companies, SUV drivers, commuters, &c - that you can paint as evil villainous capitalists and protest against. It's pretty hard to turn orbital mechanics into a villain, and protesting against gravity doesn't have a whole lot of effect :-)

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    "Gravity has a tyranical grip on everyone and giving the airline industries a near-monopoly on flight! Down with Big-Gravity!" Oct 25, 2019 at 18:08
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    Sadly, this is the most realistic answer. There are no enemies to fight against, so it won't be highly publicized. Most highly politicized movements which address a public concern don't even try to solve the actual problem, they are more focused on blaming the opposition. Even if they propose solutions, those are often so extreme as to guarantee that no other parties will accept it, for the purpose of being able to call the other parties stupid or evil.
    – vsz
    Oct 28, 2019 at 7:08
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    On the mark. The sad consequence is that even if the issue is a valid one, people will oppose it if they believe the movement is using it to gain money, power or influence at their expense. A good cause should not be a zeros-sum (or negative sum) game: everyone (or at least the vast majority) should benefit in the long run. But politicising it makes winners and losers and the losers will fight back.
    – rghome
    Oct 28, 2019 at 8:08

If you watch enough news, there are a decent amount of reports of objects coming within close range of the planet (I worked in an office where Fox News was on, and they would have a story about such events every couple of months or so). With that said, they were always back end of the hour stories and would always describe the passing as near miss in teases, only to reveal in story that they were still very well outside of Earth's gravity well and are only close by the scale of size in the separation of bodies in space (the moon is still closer much closer, and that's a two day trip by best speed... and man's highest altitude is only slightly further than the moon's orbit (set by Apollo 13 and depicted in the film when the Aquarius goes radio silent while in Orbit of the moon (Tom Hank's character has a day dream sequence about his aborted lunar walk)).

In fact, the largest single area of space debris in the near solar system, the Asteroid Belt, is still so navigable that flying humans through the densest part of the region to Jupiter without any navigation controls and never see an asteroid. Yes, you must never tell Han Solo the odds, but nobody bothered to tell George Lucas the odds either (or rather, they did, he quoted it, but Lucas never understood that odds are better as they approach one. Still best Star Wars movie, fight me).

And while there are two mass extinction events associated with meteor impacts, including the Chicxulub Impact (of "What Killed the Dinosaurs fame) and the more recent "Grande Coupure" (Great Break, 33.9 million years ago), and was likely caused by the Popigai Impact, though the Chesapeake and Tom's Canyon impacts are possible causes, if not results of the same event. The Chixulub Crater is the second largest confirmed crater and caused the extinction of 75% of all species, while the "Grande Coupure" was a very minor event in terms of mass extinctions, with only Europe and Asia seeing any of the impact. Popigai Crater is the fourth largest impact crater on Earth and the percentage of species dying off is not know, and compared to the the largest five events that ever happened.

In terms of extinction events, the Largest known Extinction Event is the "Great Dying" that took place before the start of the Triassic period. The Great Dying is believed to have wiped out 95% of all life on Earth, and the cause is not fully understood. While there are impact sites from around this time, it's they are not thought to be the cause as they were too small to kill so many things. Other suggestions where releases of chemicals into the environment due to volcanism, and even the mere existence of Pangea, or a combination of events with no single cause (The event was devestating to marine life, and mass chemical release and Pangea's near uniform coast line conditions could have reduced an evolution diversity in marine life resulting in extinction across the board).

Even the largest known impact sight, Vredefort Crater, didn't result in a mass extinction. Twice the size of the one that killed the dinosaurs, Vredefort occured about 2 billion years ago. Life was simple in those days. Back then, continents were in their infancy, all the cool cells were becoming complex and breathing oxygen. A new culinary trend called Photosythesis was introduced by Cyanobacteria, and absolutely no one was having sex, ever. No wonder scientists call this period the "Boring Billion".

Suffice to say, the period was marked by a prolonged period of not a great deal of anything interesting going on... at this point in History, Vredefort was the biggest thing to hit Earth since it cleared it's orbit of the sun (4.6 billion years)! And it wasn't thought to really have greatly effected life on earth in any measurable way. In fact, the major extinction event just before this period was known as the Great Oxygen Holocaust, which nearly killed everything. At the time, life was anaerobic, meaning that their metabolism was without oxygen. In fact, good ol' clean fresh air we love to breath was toxic to most anaerobic creatures, and with it's introduction, almost everything was no poisoned and dead and rather quickly. While we have no numbers, it might have killed more than the Great Dying event. Vredefort was a nothing-burger by comparison.

There are some 40 known impact craters on earth from various points between the Boring Billion and now (well, relatively now... on a geology scale) and only the second and fourth largest of theses impacts were tied to extinction events. And only one of them ranks in the top five largest mass extinction events and it's kinda in a four way tie for second most devastating to life. In fact, of all extinction events with a known cause, 11 were caused by "Flood Basalt" events (gigantic volcanic erruptions that flood areas with Basalt and throw sun blotting dust into the atmosphere). And to stress how doomed you are if this happens, all of these events were "significant extinction events" and three of them are in the top five, including the Great Dying. That said, there are five events where the extinction was already well underway before the Flood Basalt event... so they just made a bad situation even worse.

The next most devastating cause are Ocean Falls, which are significant drops in sea level. 12 extinction events are associated with these events, of which, seven were significant, including all of big five extinctions. This is due to the fact that the oceans are vitally important to food chains and most primary producing elements, and thus, all life, are in coastal regions.

Finally, Impact Events are definitively linked to one event (you know the one) and might have played in a second, but again, it was only on significant event. In fact, if you accept the fact that there is a God or some similar entity, then he was seriously pissed off at the Dinosaurs, as he hit them with all three causes... there was a Flood Basalt during the event, an Ocean Fall, and the second largest impact event all during the K-T Extinction event. If there is an intelligence to the Universe, it most certainly wanted to make sure the Dinosaurs were dead (and it's further evidenced by the fact that the dinosaurs endured two of the top five extinction events, with Triassic-Jurassic Event being one of the top five.).

So suffice to say, an extinction by meteor is not only highly unlikely by astological odds, but also by extinction odds, There are over forty impact sites around the world spanning a period of 2.4 billion years of the existance of life on Earth, and yet at best, only two can be attributed to an extinction event... and one of those was "extinction of all primates in Europe" levels of devastating (Humans would hunt and kill all but two species of Elephants to extinction with nothing more than sticks and sharp rocks... and then we got more petty and more devastating in the number of animals we made extinct).

Extinction by Impact is the rarest form of extinction events... but is the one everyone remembers. And fact that's going to blow your mind is this: To demonstrate just how much humans have been a thing, consider the following thought experiment: Suppose we condense all of Earth's history from it's formation to the very moment I hit send on this answer to be represented as a single 24 hour day. Midnight is the moment Earth became a planet, and 11:59.99 is the exact present moment. Life would begin around 4:00 am and the oldest fossilized life would have died at 5:36 AM. The Joys of Sexual Reproduction wouldn't occur until 6:00 PM, over twelve hours after the first fossil appeared. The age of the Dinosaurs would begin at 10:00 PM, and would wrap up at 11:39 PM with the best fireworks show ever seen by a living thing on this planet and the Mammial's keep the party going from this point. The next Impact event that resulted in a extinction event would be around 11:49 PM, but nobody really noticed it, and at 11:58.43 PM, man walks into the party like he owns the place. If you want a more practical scale, if you hold your arms straight out to form a time-line of all of earth (from your left hand to right hand), the age of human history would start right about the portion of your middle finger's finger nail... about the point where you would clip it back once it grew too long).

Suffice to say, while it's great that there is some concern, it's not by any stretch the biggest problem facing and anything short of keeping an eye on the sky would require a large investment in a defense system for a threat that happened twice in 4.6 billion years.

And going back to our 24 hours of all Earth history, we can see that Jurrassic Park was right about something related paleontology. Life as we know it is a rare and precious thing in the universe... it requires very specific conditions... but the tricky thing about life isn't starting it up, it's stopping it once you got it going. It's been ongoing since 4 am to the very last second on the clock, surviving numerous attempts to eradicate life to such a degree that it was once reduce to just 4% of all species... and it was only in the last 30 seconds of the day that life said "Hey, something is going to try and kill us again! We should do something." If Jurassic Park said one paleontological correct thing, it's that "Life Finds a Way".

4.6 billion years and no force in the verse has stopped us.


Unlike other forms of "mass extinction prevention", asteroid defense does not require large changes to human behavior.

There are many political movements that would like greater control of human behavior, for all sorts of reasons. A concern over mass extinctions caused by human behavior can be used as justification for controlling human behavior in all kinds of ways that would otherwise not be considered, i.e. because those things would be impractical, costly, or even immoral or illegal absent a crisis.

Asteroid strikes are not caused by human behavior, so changing ordinary human behavior will not prevent them. The list of solutions presented are "coolheaded technocratic reactions" because it's evident to everyone that is all that is necessary. Those technocratic solutions might be complicated and expensive, but the expense for that is not dissimilar to other expensive things that governments do.

Compare that with the problem of anthropogenic global warming. Like it or not, there is not a shared understanding where a single course of action appears to be self evidently the best one, especially if you consider international perspectives (e.g. why should third world countries be denied the economic growth that the West got to enjoy?). It's also caused by human behavior, so discussions about it tend to be about how we ought to change human behavior. When it's a crisis, then those changes to human behavior become more extreme. Instead of "let's try to pollute less" the solutions turn into "we need total government control of the economy in order to de-carbonize before 2040."

Once you start considering things as extreme as decarbonizing the entire economy by fiat, it's easy for other people to piggy back on that with agendas of their own that would otherwise be infeasible. "While we're decarbonizing the economy, we're going to displace lots of people from their jobs, so let's create a basic income to fix that." And thus the advocates for basic income, which would ordinarily be thought of as an unrelated policy proposal, get behind advocacy for climate change in the way they wouldn't for asteroid defense. Rinse and repeat that for every possible political agenda that would benefit from total government control of the economy and you end up with a large collection of activists who can sustain and organize a political movement.

  • I feel like you're seriously underestimating the resources it would take to build a space force capable of detecting, intercepting, and then diverting or destroying a meteor 11-81km in diameter.
    – lazarusL
    Oct 28, 2019 at 20:16
  • @lazarusL Most estimates I have seen for asteroid defense systems are in the $2 to $20 billion dollar range. That's small potatoes when compared to other things the US government spends money on, (a nuclear submarine costs ~$2 billion) and is definitely much cheaper than any Green New Deal-type proposal for global warming.
    – Joe
    Oct 29, 2019 at 11:55

The closest thing might be The Heaven's Gate Cult in the late 90's. Their political and cult movement was about the comet Hale Bopp. Their website is, amazingly, still up now at: http://heavensgate.com/. They did not focus on an impact; but they did consider a comet so important that they should die for it.

  • Were they the ones that tried to jump on it (by killing their earth bodies)?
    – JJJ
    Oct 25, 2019 at 16:04
  • They were the ones who wore Nikes in their transit to the comet. Oct 25, 2019 at 16:17

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