(Photo : courtesy USGS)
The top official from NASA has told members of Congress they have two options when it comes to protecting the country against future meteor strikes: either spend the money necessary to develop programs for detecting and possibly intercepting space objects on a collision course with Earth, or hope for divine intervention.
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In any case, said Charles Bolden Jr., administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, during a House Committee hearing March 19, praying would be the only thing the United States people could do today if a meteor similar to the one that hit in Russia on Feb. 15 was found to be on a path toward New York City, with impact three weeks away.
"We are where we are today because, you know, you all told us to do something and between the administration and the Congress, the funding to do that did not --- the bottom line is always the funding did not come," Bolden said. "The reason I can't do anything in the next three weeks is because for decades we have put it off."
The space agency was budgeted $20.5 million for its near-Earth object observation program in fiscal year 2012, a fraction of the estimated billions of dollars it would cost to activate and maintain an adequate early-response program, according to the calculations of several industry experts.
That enormous funding gap what NASA needs to implement genuine protections from meteors and what lawmakers have so far agreed to give the agency shows him Congress hasn't taken the issue seriously, Bolden sternly said.
Bolden estimated that at the current funding level it would take until 2030 to catalog 90 percent of the near-Earth objects between 140 meters and 1 kilometer in width, as mandated by Congress.
White House science adviser John Holdren said the cost of an asteroid-hunting space telescope would likely cost between $500 million to $750 million, but would speed up search for near-Earth objects to under nine years.
Then, the Obama administration's plan to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 would cost about $2 billion a year, he added.
"If we want to save the planet, because I think that's what we're talking about, then we have to get together," Bolden said, "and decide how we're going to execute that plan."
Holdren and Bolden presented a status report on the asteroid search, reporting that about 95 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than one kilometer are currently being tracked. But, out of the estimated 13,000 to 20,000 asteroids bigger than 140 meter, only about 10 percent have been detected. If an asteroid of that size were to strike land, it "could devastate the better part of a continent," Holdren said.
Bolden said less than one percent of the space rocks in the 30- to 100-meter range have been found. Although such asteroids might not be able to wipe out an entire continent, they would be bigger and potentially more destructive than the 55-foot-wide (17-meter-wide) rock that blew up last month --- without warning --- over Chelyabinsk in Russia.
Lawmakers asked repeatedly how much advance warning would be need to ward off a threatening asteroid, and were repeatedly told years. Even a nuclear-armed mission to blast an asteroid, like Bruce Willis' character did in the film "Armageddon," would require lots of preparation, the attending Congress members were told.