Wants Agency To Fund Search For Smaller NEOs
Seems there are more than a few fans of the movies "Deep Impact"
and "Armageddon" in the halls of Congress. On Thursday, lawmakers
derided NASA for not spending enough to detect "Near-Earth Objects"
Scott Pace, head of program analysis and evaluation at NASA,
testified before a congressional hearing the risk of a NEO slamming
into Earth is too small to divert the space agency's limited
resources, now being spent primarily to complete the International
Space Station and develop the Constellation manned space
Pace told lawmakers the agency couldn't do more to detect NEOs
"given the constrained resources and the strategic objectives NASA
already has been tasked with."
The threatened 2011 closure of the Arecibo Radio Observatory in
Puerto Rico served as a focal point for lawmakers who chided NASA
for not properly funding efforts to track objects in space.
"We're talking about minimal expense compared to the cost of
having to absorb this type of damage," California Congressman Dana
Rohrabacher said, reports Agence-France Presse. "After all, it may
be the entire planet that is destroyed!"
"We must take action now to enhance our awareness to prevent a
catastrophe," Puerto Rico delegate Luis Fortuno said, also noting
cutting off funding would take away funds from the impoverished US
Members of the House Space and
Aeronautics Subcommittee pointed to the small asteroid Apophis,
which may come perilously close to Earth on Friday, April 13,
2029... and even closer in 2036. NASA states there is a one in
45,000 chance Apophis could hit the planet then, saying the
273-yards-wide asteroid would have to pass through the equivalent
of a "gravitational keyhole" for that to happen.
"It's a very unlikely situation and one we can drive to zero,
probably," said Donald Yeomans, manager of the NEO program at
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Even if Arecibo is closed, NASA says the bulk of NEO monitoring
will be picked up by four smaller radio telescopes now under
construction in Hawaii by the US Air Force.
NASA only tracks NEOs larger than one kilometer in diameter --
large enough to cause a global disaster, though not so big it would
destroy the planet, per se. "Extinction-class" objects -- like the
one that wiped out the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago -- measure
at least 10 kilometers in diameter.
Congress attacked NASA for not answering its 2005 mandate to
expand the search for smaller NEOs, at least 140 meters in
diameter, saying the agency's annual NEO budget of $4.1 million was
not enough to cover such a search. NASA says there are about 20,000
smaller objects that could potentially strike Earth.