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NASA and the White House Agree: Space Needs More Surveillance

Mar 19, 2013 03:16 PM EDT
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The bad news: the U.S. space agency is a decade behind its congressionally-imposed mandate to detect 90 percent of asteroids 140 meters or bigger by 2020. The good news: NASA's leaders say they are tracking anything capable of causing a global catastrophe and are confident the Earth is safe at least for the next several centuries.

The White House is not as calm about it, however.

"Unfortunately, the number of undetected potential 'city killers' is very large," John Holdren, assistant to President Barack Obama for science and technology, said at a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Tuesday. He then added that they estimate there are as many as 10,000 such asteroids, possibly more.

The concern, though always there, was brought to the forefront of politics and the news by the Feb. 15 Russian meteor. Besides injuring 1,200, it was the largest meteor to explode near the Earth's surface and the Air Force was about as surprised as the rest of the world when it hit.

The problem, says NASA's administrator Charles Bolden, is money.

"If you really want to find and detect near-Earth objects early enough that we can do something, you need to have something in space," he said. The estimated price tag for such an object, according to Bolden, is in the billions of dollars.

One group that's not willing to wait around for government funding is the non-profit B612.

Founded in 2001 by a group of concerned scientists, the group states on their website that, unlike the dinosaurs of old, humans have the technology and means to prevent their own death-by-meteor.

Their first step revolves around creating the first comprehensive dynamic map of the inner solar system. It would show the positions and trajectories of the hundreds of thousands of Near Earth Asteroids orbiting the Earth.

To do this, B612 says they need just $400 million.

In the past, humanity's gotten lucky. Despite the injuries, the area the latest meteor hit was relatively remote, and the last time anything of a similar size hit Earth it landed in a Siberian forest. Scientists and others worry that, in the future, that luck may run out.

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