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NASA Overlooks a Lot of Deadly Asteroids: Report

Sep 16, 2014 05:07 PM EDT

If a dangerous meteorite comes heading Earth's way, there's actually only a 10 percent chance that experts behind NASA's near-Earth object (NEO) tracking program will even notice it in time to warn an endangered public.

That's according to a recent audit of the NEO program, revealing that when it comes to medium-sized asteroids just large enough to punch through Earth's atmosphere without burning up, only about one in 10 are detected. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

NASA's Inspector General Paul Martin said in a report released Monday that the agency estimates that it has identified only about 10 percent of all asteroids 140 meters and larger.

Worse still, "given its current pace and resources... it will not meet the goal of identifying 90 percent of such objects by 2020," Martin wrote in the report.

That's despite the fact that a 90 percent rate of identification by 2020 is exactly what Congress is demanding of the heavily funded program. And they have a right to demand it. Over the past five years the budget to track NEOs has been raised 10-fold, from $4 million to $40 million (USD), but little improvement has been made in tracking capabilities.

Martin blames the lack of "overarching program oversight, objectives, and established milestones to track practice," for the program's current inadequacies. According to the report, the many research activities sapping the program's budget lack collaboration and focus.

Still, not everything is so bad. The report also revealed that when it comes to doomsday-sized asteroids about a kilometer (0.6 mi) or larger in diameter, the agency can detect them with at least 95 percent accuracy.

But while we WILL be able to see the apocalypse coming, those smaller meteorites the program is likely to miss can still be destructive. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov]

Martin cites the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor as an example. This meteor was a mere 59 feet in diameter, yet managed to explode with 30 times the force of the 1945 atomic bomb detonation on Hiroshima, Japan. Thankfully, because of the angle and speed at which the space-rock was plummeting, it experienced an air-burst about 20 miles above Russia. Still, the resulting debris and powerful shockwave caused notable damage to the region.

"Recent research suggests that Chelyabinsk-type events occur every 30 to 40 years," the report read, adding that most impacts would occur in the ocean rather than in populated areas.

However, it would no doubt be nice to know when dangerous space rocks such as that are headed our way.

Martin suggests adding employees, increasing collaboration with private initiatives, and simple focusing goals could greatly help, but there is little chance that we will ever see every meteor coming with the utmost certainty.

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