Piet Hut: The Birth of B612
October 7 marked 15 years since B612 was formed to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts. This week, five founding board members will each reflect on B612’s 15 years, looking at the strides we’ve made in the field of planetary defense and where we want to go in the next 15 years.
The post below is written by B612 founding board member, Piet Hut. Dr. Hut is a professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, where he is also the head of the Program for Interdisciplinary Studies.
My interest in protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts goes back to 1983, when I talked with colleagues at the University of Berkeley about the mystery of possible periodicities in impacts on Earth as well as in mass extinctions. This led us to publish our hypothesis that the Sun may have a companion star, which we dubbed “Nemesis”; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemesis_(hypothetical_star).
While Nemesis has not been found and may very well not exist, it made me wonder about possible ways to prevent future impacts. However, I did not pursue that question until 18 years later, when Ed Lu came to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He gave a talk about his life as an astronaut, after an earlier career in plasma astrophysics. In the middle of his talk, he made an off-hand remark about a new plasma engine being tested in the building where he worked, and how that could be used to visit asteroids and perhaps even nudge their orbit to prevent an impact on Earth.
I immediately perked up upon hearing that line and asked him to go for a walk right after his presentation. While we took a stroll around the pond behind the Institute, we quickly realized that we had independently been thinking about ways to change the orbits of asteroids. It didn’t take long for us to conclude that the time had come to get a group of experts together to explore what could be done.
A few weeks later, I visited Ed for one day and that was long enough to plan a workshop. A couple months afterward, two dozen colleagues, including Ed and me, came together to discuss the various ways that we can protect the Earth from asteroid impacts. There was a lot of spontaneous excitement during the meeting and a shared sense that the time was right for action.
Within a year, the B612 Foundation was born to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts and inform and forward world-wide decision-making on planetary defense issues.
Founding Board Member, B612