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NASA Lacks Funding to Track Potentially Dangerous Asteroids

August 14, 2009 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
According to a report by a government panel, Congress has not provided NASA with the funding needed to reach its goal of tracking 90 percent of dangerous near-Earth objects by 2020.

Near-Earth Objects Program Behind Goal

A congressionally created panel from the National Academy of Sciences released a preliminary report on the status of NASA near-Earth objects program Wednesday. It found that NASA hasn’t been given the funding necessary to fulfill a directive set by Congress to identify 90 percent of near-Earth objects (NEOs) 140 meters (460 feet) in diameter and larger by 2020.

NEOs of this size are “generally recognized to represent a very significant threat to life on Earth if they strike in or near urban areas,” according to the report. NASA has been able to identify less than a third of the estimated 20,000 NEOs of this size with its current technology.

“Only limited facilities are currently involved in this survey/discovery effort, funded by NASA’s existing budget,” says the report, which determined NASA may need “one or more additional observatories, possibly including a space-based observatory” to reach its goal.

The panel, which was created by Congress in 2008, will release the second part of its report at the end of the year. It will address how NASA can prevent a near-Earth object from striking the Earth.

Background: Near-Earth objects

NASA estimates that there are 20,000 asteroids and comets of at least 460 feet, according to The Associated Press. As of Aug. 10, NASA has identified 6,246 near-Earth objects, 1,060 of which are larger than 1 kilometer. At the moment, there are 145 NEOs considered to be potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) and five asteroids considered to have a better than a 1-in-a-million chance of striking Earth.

One of those five asteroids is Apophis, a 300-meter wide asteroid that has a one-in-44,000 chance of striking Earth in 2036. It was spotted in 2004, and after scientists could not develop a way to definitively prevent it from reaching Earth, Congress formed the panel to examine NEOs.

NASA’s near-Earth objects program uses telescopes (Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program and Spacewatch), radar telescopes (the Arecibo Observatory and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex), and space missions such as NEAR (Near Earth Asteriod Rendezvous), which landed on an asteroid in 2001.

The program is responsible for almost all of the world’s tracking of NEOs. The United States is the only country with a government-sponsored detection system; Canada and Germany are developing spacecraft that can track NEOs, but “neither mission will detect fainter or smaller objects than ground-based telescopes,” according to the National Academy of Sciences report.

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