Exoatmospheric Plowshares: Using a Nuclear Explosive Device for Planetary Defense Against an Incoming Asteroid

88 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2018

See all articles by David A. Koplow

David A. Koplow

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: August 9, 2018


What should be done if we suddenly discover a large asteroid on a collision course with Earth? The consequences of an impact could be enormous – scientists believe that such a strike 60 million years ago led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and something of similar magnitude could happen again. Although no such extraterrestrial threat now looms on the horizon, astronomers concede that they cannot detect all the potentially hazardous “near-Earth objects,” and even more striking, they acknowledge that if such a danger were discerned, there is currently no proven capability for diverting or destroying it. One possible response to this type of incipient catastrophe could be to send into space a nuclear explosive device, hoping the massive blast could alter the asteroid’s trajectory – indeed, if time were short, that might be the only effective remedy. But two major nuclear arms control treaties – which have been joined by most of the leading countries and are widely appreciated as fundamental to global security – specifically forbid that approach. This article examines that critical clash of legal, political, and technical values, and concludes that the best response would be for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a binding resolution pursuant to its powers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, to deal with the emergency on an expeditious, global basis. A proposed draft of such a resolution is presented, along with explanatory annotations.

Keywords: Asteroid, Meteor, Space, Near-Earth Object, Nuclear Weapon, Weapon of Mass Destruction, Treaty, Outer Space Treaty, Test Ban Treaty, United Nations, Security Council, Chicxulub, UNSCR

Suggested Citation

Koplow, David A., Exoatmospheric Plowshares: Using a Nuclear Explosive Device for Planetary Defense Against an Incoming Asteroid (August 9, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3229382 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3229382

David A. Koplow (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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