No Funds Existing for Deadly Asteroid Discovery

 
 
By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-08-16
 
 
 

In 2005, Congress mandated NASA by 2020 to locate 90 percent of the potentially deadly asteroids 500 feet or wider that might threaten Earth with globally catastrophic results. NASA estimates there are at least 20,000 of the huge rocks hurtling through the solar system. Scientists have located about 6,000 of them.

There's only one small problem with Congress' mandate: Since voting for the mandate, lawmakers have not funded the program to seek out what NASA calls NEOs (near-Earth objects). According to an interim report issued by the National Academy of Sciences Aug. 12, NASA will not be able to complete its mission without an infusion of cash.

"Currently, the U.S. government spends a relatively small amount of money funding a search and survey program to discover and track near-Earth objects, and virtually no money on studying methods of mitigating the hazards posed by such objects," the report states. "Although Congress has mandated that NASA conduct this survey program and has established goals for the program, neither Congress nor the administration has sought to fund it with new appropriations."

As a result, the report finds, NASA has supported the search for deadly objects by siphoning funds from other programs, "while still leaving a substantial gap between the goals established by Congress and the funds needed to achieve them."

NASA estimates, at a minimum, it will take $800 million to met the mandate, including building at least one more observatory and a possible space-based observatory. NASA is considering less costly alternatives, including several ground-based telescopes that have been proposed or are currently under development. But the ground-based telescopes are not fully funded nor principally dedicated to NEO discovery and mapping.

Ever helpful lawmakers told NASA last year to report on "a medium-sized space mission with the purpose of detecting near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter." The National Academy of Sciences found, "Several possible spacecraft for conducting such a search have been proposed, [but] no mission has been approved."

Without proper funding, it will take NASA decades to discover and map the potentially deadly space rocks. The concern is what happens in the meantime. Will a fireball the size of the Superdome come hurtling toward an unprepared Earth?

That brings up another problem with Congress' unfunded mandate to NASA: Lawmakers also ordered the space agency to come up with a mitigation plan in case a big bruiser is discovered heading toward the planet. NASA is still working on that one, although the effort is so sketchy it was not included in the National Academy of Sciences' interim report.

According to the National Academy, an asteroid approximately 3,000 to 6,000 feet wide would be expected to produce a "continent-sized fireball and form a crater approximately fifteen times the diameter of the asteroid. ... It could instead produce a devastating tsunami if it hit in an ocean."

Surviving such an impact is only half the game. As the report dryly notes, "However, modern human civilization, with its strong dependence on agricultural crops and intricate distribution networks, is presumably much more fragile than the mere survival of humans or other animals as a species. We would thus want to avoid any impact that caused a large fraction of surviving humans to die of starvation, even though humans as a species would endure."


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