The UN finally has a plan for dealing with dangerous asteroids

Surprisingly, until a vote last week there was no unified international programme for dealing with the possibility of an asteroid threat.

In the movies, the Americans stop the asteroids. As of this week that responsibility falls to the UN (sort of).

As a result of a vote by the General Assembly last week, the International Asteroid Warning Group will be conjured into existence as a place for countries around the world to share information about dangerous asteroids. Here’s Clara Moskowitz in Scientific American:

If astronomers detect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth, the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraftto slam into the object and deflect it from its collision course. 

[Former astronaut Ed] Lu and other members of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) recommended these steps to the UN as a first step to address at the long-neglected problem of errant space rocks. “No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” ASE member Rusty Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969, said Friday at the American Museum of Natural History. “NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency.” The ASE advocates that each nation delegate responsibility for dealing with a potential asteroid impact to an internal agency - before the event is upon us.

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space referred to above is a body that’s been around since 1959. It’s something of a relic of the Cold War, as it was set up in the aftermath of the Sputnik launch in 1958, and it will fall to this committee to coordinate our global space defence if an asteroid comes our way.

Something to consider here is that we don’t have a proven method of stopping an asteroid, so coordinating research into that kind of technology might be one of the committee’s first tasks. Possible methods proposed by scientists include explosions (obviously), deflection with a large object, ion beams, powerful lasers, and even converting it into a kind of rocky spaceship by attaching spaceship engines to it.

Even if governments aren’t totally on the ball when it comes to spotting asteroids, however, there are private organisations that are also watching the skies. Ed Lu (mentioned above) has flown on the space shuttle and carried out a mission aboard the International Space Station, and was one of those who recommended the creation of the International Asteroid Warning Group to the UN. He’s also the founder of the B612 Foundation, which is planning on launching its own asteroid-seeking space telescope (Sentinel) in 2017. B612, by the way, is the name of the asteroid that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince lives on.

Scientific American quotes Lu as claiming that there are a hundred times more asteroids “out there” than we’ve found so far. Is that true? Probably.

According to Nasa, we’ve found 95 percent of asteroids that pose a danger to Earth that are bigger than 1km in diameter. That’s good - those are the ones that would cause mass extinctions (including our own). But we also know that it doesn’t take even a tenth of that to cause widespread destruction. The asteroid that caused the Tunguska event is estimated to have been at least 60m wide, while the Chelyabinsk meteor was probably no larger than 20 metres and injured nearly 2,000 people.

Nasa thinks that there are probably around 19,000 asteroids between 100 metres and 1km in size that post a risk to Earth, and millions more that are smaller even than that. We’ll be able to deflect asteroids (hopefully) if we have enough warning that they’re coming, and we’ll spot them further in advance the bigger they are. And while a civilisation-killing piece of deadly space rock isn’t quite as dramatic, the random chances of death from above on a smaller town, city, or village-like scale is still a rather worrying prospect.

The United Nations headquarters. (Image: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Curtis Holland
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Living the Meme: What happened to the "Bacon is good for me" boy?

Eight years after becoming a meme, the boy dubbed "King Curtis" explains what life is like now.

It is hard to pinpoint the one quote that made Curtis Holland a viral sensation. When he appeared on Wife Swap eight years ago, Holland – aka King Curtis – battled ferociously with his replacement mum Joy, who wanted to rid his home of unhealthy snacks. “Chicken nuggets is like my family,” he said at one point; “I don’t wanna be skinny! I wanna be fat and happy,” he said at another; during one particularly memorable scene he wrote “I am not lisning to your rules” on a Post-It note.

“Bacon is good for me!” perhaps comes out top. The quote – like all the others – has become an internet meme, featured in screenshots and gifs, but has additionally been remixed into a song. The original clip has over ten million views on YouTube. Now aged 15, Holland is speaking to me from his home in Vanceboro, North Carolina. “Oh yes!” he says when I ask if he still likes bacon. “Every morning my mum gets up and we all cook bacon together.”

 

Before speaking to Holland, I had eaten (ten) chicken nuggets for my tea, but when I tell him this I'm not sure he believes me. “I know some people say this just to say it,” he says, before admitting he himself had eaten some that day. “This morning that's exactly what I had.”

Holland speaks in a straightforward matter-of-fact tone that is just as endearing now as it was when he was seven. He is incredibly respectful – calling me “ma’am” at least three times – and is patient when I struggle to decipher his thick Southern accent (“pennies” for example, becomes “pinnies”, “cars” is “curs”).

“We live in a small community, and a lot of people say that I'm the movie star,” says Holland, when I ask him to explain how life has changed since appearing on TV. When I ask about life after becoming a meme, Holland is less sure. “I mean I don't have a Twitter but a lot of people say that I'm up there just about every week,” he says (in reality, the clip of his appearance alone – never mind gifs, quotes or screenshots – is tweeted multiple times a day).

There is one meme moment, however, that Holland definitely didn’t miss. In 2015, Pretty Little Liars actress Lucy Hale posted a photo to Instagram asking for an update on his life. In response, Holland created a YouTube video asking for money to rebuild cars and confidently saying “Someday I’ll get my own bacon brand.” The video got over 400,000 views.

“I went viral for I think three or four days and I was on the most views on YouTube,” explains Holland. “That was pretty cool for me, to see when I look on YouTube there my face is.” How did it make him feel, I ask? “It makes you feel good inside. One day I come home from school and I was mad, and I can tell you it just made me feel really good inside to see that [the video] was pretty much one of the top in basically the world.”

Despite enjoying the attention, Holland has no aspirations to be a TV or internet star again. He is part of an organisation called the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and plans to go to his local community college before becoming a welder. “There’s a few know-it-alls in the community,” he says, “They just say it’s crazy how you went and did all that and now you’re not going on in the movie field. That’s not something I’m really interested in.”

Yet although Holland says it’s “time to move on a little bit”, he also admits he would be open to any offers. “A lot of people say well why don’t you just get up with a bacon company and do commercials or something… I mean I wouldn’t mind doing that if they came and asked me.” After Wife Swap, a company did come and film a pilot for Holland’s own show, but it never amounted to anything. “I mean you'd be lucky to get on TV once in your whole life and I feel like I really enjoyed it when I was up there,” he says when I ask if this was disappointing.

All of this means that Holland hasn’t made much money from his viral fame. Unlike other memes I’ve spoken to, he hasn’t earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I believe I got 150 bucks,” he says of his “Update” YouTube video, “All the other stuff like the ‘Bacon is good for me’ songs, they’ve [the creators] made $75,000 and that’s a lot of money putting away."

“I mean it don’t annoy me because it ain’t my fault; it’s nobody’s fault in the situation. They found a way around the system,” he says when I ask if he’s annoyed at others’ making money at his expense.

Nowadays, Holland is still recognised when he is out and about, and says he has signed over one thousand autographs in his life (once he was wary of a neighbourhood policeman who was asking him to sign a parking ticket, before he realised he simply wanted an autograph). “I don’t get sick of it, but of course you’ve got a few people that want to be rude about what you’re doing.

“I really don’t care, I’m a really upbeat kind of person. If there's somebody in a computer screen telling me something that means nothing, you know?”

For Holland, then, the good outweighs the bad. Apart from being asked after by Lucy Hale, his favourite thing about going viral is that he gets to make people laugh. “If I can go up to somebody and make their day and make them smile, I feel like I’ve done a great thing,” he says.

I end the interview with Holland like I end all of my interviews with memes: by asking him if there’s anything he would like to say – a message he’d like to get out there, or a misconception he’d like to clear up – now that he has the chance.

“Oh nothing I've got to say,” he begins, “except bacon is still good for me.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.