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Funding Woes Halt Plans To Search Out Potential "Killer" Asteroids

Asteroid Apophis (2004 MN4) speeds toward Earth. In 2004 initial readings suggested that Apophis might strike the Earth in 2029. Subsequent observations determined no impact would take place. Credit: Michael Carroll
by Staff Writers
Ames CA (SPX) Mar 09, 2007
A giant rock, perhaps half a mile in diameter, may be hurtling towards us this very minute through the emptiness of space. If it strikes the Earth, or blows up in the atmosphere, the explosion would be equivalent to that of 100 million tons of TNT, twice as powerful as the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. If it struck the United States, it could wipe out a small state. But chances are, we will never see it coming.

This, explained Simon Worden, director of NASA Ames research center, is because scientists have not been given the funds to look for these Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that might be heading our way. "We know what to do," he said; "we just don't have the money.

The objects in question are space rocks with a diameter greater than 460 feet (140 meters), and scientists estimate that there are 20,000 of these that could potentially collide with Earth. In 2005 Congress asked NASA to come up with a plan to track most killer asteroids, and propose how to deflect one if it is headed for a catastrophic collision. Although NASA scientists believe they could find 90% of these objects by the year 2020, funding for the search has been hard to come by.

NASA is already tracking the much smaller number of asteroids that are at least a kilometer (3300 feet) across and whose orbit takes them close to our planet. One such rock, scientists believe, struck the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, creating the Chicxulub crater and wiping out the dinosaurs. A similar impact today may well have a similar effect on human life. NASA's program has so far located 769 such asteroids, and expects to complete the survey by the end of next year. None of the objects currently being tracked is on a collision course with Earth.

The space rocks with a diameter of at least 460 feet, however, are much more numerous and - being smaller - much harder to detect. To find them, NASA scientists have come up with several different strategies. One possibility is to launch an infrared space telescope dedicated to this mission; another is to build a new telescope specifically designed to look for these NEOs, and yet another option is to rely on observations that "piggy-back" on existing large telescopes.

The estimated price tags on these projects range from $1.1 billion (for the space telescope) to $300 million (for piggy-backing), and all of them have so far been rejected as too costly. "The decision of the agency is we just can't do anything about it right now" said NASA project scientist Lindley Johnson.

This could be a risky policy warned John Logsdon, space policy director at George Washington University, who said the search for possible "killer" NEOs should be a high priority. "You can't deflect them if you can't find them," he said, "and we can't find things that can cause massive damage."

Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society, pointed out that the only facility currently capable of carrying out the search is scheduled to be shut down for lack of funding. "A future asteroid impact is certain" he said, "but when, where and how is unknown." "Observations, study, and the search for possible impactors should be increased. The report presents a very comprehensive look for the future, but what needs immediate attention is the present. The ONLY facility on Earth that can track very close Near-Earth Objects, the Arecibo radio telescope, may soon be terminated by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The amount of money needed to keep it open is small -- a few million dollars per year. This is a fraction of the price tag for all the other recommendations" said Friedman.

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NASA Lacks Funds To Find Killer Asteroids
Beijing (XNA) Mar 08, 2007
A killer asteroid whose target is Earth will likely go undetected because NASA doesn't have the funds to find it, media reported Tuesday. NASA officials say the space agency is capable of finding nearly all the asteroids that might destroy Earth, but the price to find at least 90 percent of the 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids and comets by 2020 would be about 1 billion U.S. dollars, according to a report NASA will release later this week.

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