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NASA Warns Lawmakers More Funding Needed To Protect Earth From Doomsday Asteroids

March 20, 2013
Image Credit: Puchan/Shutterstock

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

The giant Chicxulub crater in Yucatan is evidence that sometime around 65 million years ago a massive asteroid smashed into the earth wiping out most life that existed at that time, including all non-avian dinosaurs. While it is hard to imagine a similar scenario taking place today, there is currently little that we could do but sit and “pray.”

That is unless, of course, the government can do more now to ensure scientists have the tools needed to track the night sky looking for such asteroids, and also have systems in place to stop them from impacting the planet.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was called on by Congress´ House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Tuesday to discuss how well the federal government is doing in its efforts to track “near-Earth objects” (NEOs) and how prepared the world is to avoiding a collision.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

Bolden, who was also joined by other top government officials, explained that there is good news and there is bad news when it comes to NEOs.

The bad news is that more than 10,000 asteroids large enough to level a city pass by Earth continually without being detected. But the good news is that there is an “extremely remote” chance that any of them will make an impact in the next hundred years, he said.

Bolden said there are limited options for dealing with the issue of NEOs. He noted that lawmakers can either provide adequate funding for the detection and possible diversion of NEOs, or they can just hope these space rocks do not impact Earth.

Tuesday´s hearing came in response to last month´s meteor explosion over the Ural Mountains in Russia and the subsequent asteroid fly-by of 2012 DA14 on February 15. While DA14 was already known about since last year, the meteor was a complete surprise. It exploded some 18 miles over Russia, sending a shockwave across the region that damaged buildings and left more than a thousand people with minor injuries due to shattering windows.

Despite the unexpected visit, data suggest that scientists are doing a much better job locating these cosmic projectiles thanks largely to improved technology and recent insistence from Congress that space threats receive more attention.

In the early days (pre-2000) NASA scientists had found several hundred NEOs. But by 2012 that number had grown to nearly 10,000, of which 95 percent were more than a-half-mile across — big enough to wipe humans off the face of the Earth.

HOLLYWOOD SAVES US

Hollywood has done their job at protecting us from such peril.

In “Armageddon,” Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his ragtag group of miners were sent into space to drill and place a nuclear warhead inside a massive asteroid that was on a crash course with Earth.

In “Deep Impact,” the government sent a group of astronauts to blow up a huge space rock before it could wipe out the whole world.

In both those stories the government had the technological know-how and resources to save the world. But currently, the US government does not have any plans like this in the works and, it is likely that such plans would not work in reality.

Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) grilled Bolden during Tuesday´s meeting, asking him: “What would we do if you detected even a small one like the one that detonated in Russia headed for New York in three weeks? What would you do?”

“The answer to you is, if it’s coming in three weeks, pray,” Bolden said.

He said in order to protect America, and possibly the entire world, from dangerous NEOs, the government will need to step up and provide more money for research and real-world solutions.

“We are where we are today because you all told us to do something – and between the Administration and the Congress … the funding did not come,” he said.

Luckily, the really big ones, like the one that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs, typically only strike every 20,000 years. And because these ones are so large, they are the easiest to spot well in advance of a potential impact. However, we currently do not have the technology to stop it from hitting Earth, largely because the money is not there to make it happen.

However, White House science adviser John Holdren was quick to point out that funding devoted annually to cataloging asteroids has risen from $5 million to more than $20 million over the past few years.

But even at that level, Bolden noted, it would take until 2030 to catalog 90 percent of the NEOs greater than 450-feet wide, as mandated by Congress.

AMBITIOUS PLANS

At the hearing, titled “Threats from Space: A Review of U.S. Government Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors,” Holdren recommended funding a monitoring satellite that would scan space while orbiting the Sun near Venus.

But Bolden was more adamant about the possibilities of landing astronauts on an actual asteroid by 2025. He said a manned asteroid mission would create the capabilities needed to push an asteroid off a potential Earth-bound trajectory.

While nuking asteroids, such as what Hollywood has accomplished, would likely not work in the real world, scientists agree for the most part that pushing a doomsday rock of its trajectory is the best approach discussed to date.

In fact, one team has already proposed such a plan last month when DA14 made its close approach of Earth.

Scientists from the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) developed a prototype system called DE-STAR, which could use the energy of the Sun to gently nudge asteroids off their trajectory. The system could potentially even use lasers to gradually zap asteroids out of existence.

Holdren acknowledged that the plan to land on an asteroid and deflect it was realistic, but the price tag is profound, costing nearly $2 billion a year to maintain. However, the estimated cost of an asteroid-hunting telescope is $500 to $750 million, and could reduce the congressionally mandated survey time to six to eight years.

BUDGET

Bolden warned that automatic spending cuts will affect any future efforts in the asteroid-hunting game, as well as manned space exploration.

“The president has a plan. But that plan is incremental,” Bolden said, referring to Obama’s budget proposal. “And if we want to save the planet, because I think that´s what we´re talking about, then we have to get together … and decide how we´re going to execute that plan.”

Bolden noted that enlisting other countries as well as amateur astronomers to join the hunt for NEOs could be an important step in preserving the human species. But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) reminded Bolden that China could not be on that list of partners because of a congressional ban.

Some lawmakers expressed interest in retrofitting instruments and systems already in place as a way to save money on developing new projects. However Bolden, et al, stopped them dead in their tracks. A call to retrofit the James Webb Space Telescope with instruments to hunt for asteroids and another to implement the US Air Force´s missile launch monitoring system to scan the sky for asteroids were shot down as being un-implementable.

But while NASA and lawmakers are working out how they plan to tackle the asteroid-hunting crisis, other private companies are already making gains in the field.

The B612 Foundation is spending $500 million to develop and launch an Earth-orbiting infrared telescope to track asteroids from space. Planetary Resources is also jumping into the asteroid-hunting market and is developing Arkyd-100 series spacecraft that will aid in its effort to detect NEOs and the potential mining of these cosmic space rocks.

NASA, which tracks 98 percent of all NEOs that are detected, is also teaming up with universities, agencies and other partners in order to beef up tracking efforts, Bolden told lawmakers at the hearing.

Among the questioning, lawmakers continually asked how much advance warning would be required to deflect an asteroid from impacting Earth, to which the continual answer was: “it would take years.”

EARTH IMPACT

Scientists estimate that between 50 and 150 tons of space debris strikes the Earth´s atmosphere every day. Most of this debris burns up in the atmosphere and never reaches the ground. While most of the debris is dust and small particles, larger rocks the size of small cars generally strike the atmosphere once a week, also safely burning up in the atmosphere.

Those the size of the one that exploded over Russia on February 15 occur about once every 10 to 30 years, according to Prof. Edwin Bergin of the University of Michigan´s Department of Astronomy.

As for bigger ones, like the one that exploded over Siberia in 1908, known as the Tunguska Event, they could be “considered once-in-a-lifetime events,” Jamie Gleason, of U Michigan´s Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES), told redOrbit last month.


Source: Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online



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