Ever since the powerful meteor explosion over Russia last month, eyes have been focusing on the sky and, in particular, what can fall out of it. With the knowledge that Earth had a very close call with disaster, many people started asking why no government(s) have looked into building an asteroid defense shield.
Now, Washington D.C. has the answer: money.
In a Congressional hearing on Monday, things got heated as lawmakers asked both NASA and Air Force officials what they have been doing to combat the threat presented by space junk. When asked why NASA is nowhere near meeting its 2005 goal of finding 90% of large, near-Earth asteroids by 2020, NASA chief Charles Bolden put the blame on both lawmakers and her White House, shooting back with "you all told us to do something, and between the administration and the Congress, the bottom line is the funding did not come." Bolden went on to add that NASA would be lucky, with current funding, to meet that goal by 2030.
The military is also blaming budget woes for lack of progress in tracking near-Earth asteroids. Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, said that the sequester is already hurting the Air Force's capabilities to track space rocks and warned that future cuts could be “dire.”
As for the most revealing, troubling thing to come out of the hearing, it is the fact that, should a civilization-threatening asteroid head our way, nothing could be done to avert disaster. When asked what NASA would do if such a rock was discovered three weeks in advance, Bolden responded with “pray.”
Talk about troubling.
As of now, there are millions of asteroids floating around the solar system, mostly in the Main Asteroid Belt, which is safely between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Of the millions of asteroids 7,000 are classified as near-Earth. Of the near-Earth objects, over1,000 are considered as "potentially hazardous," which is defined as an object over 500 feet in diameter that can come within 4.6 million miles of Earth.
Obviously, a metallic space rock 500 feet across traveling at up to 15 miles per second could do an immense amount of damage. For comparison, the object (most likely a comet) that caused the Tunguska Incidentwas probably less than 100 yards (300 feet across) but still leveled forests for over 1,000 square miles.
Needless to say, if such an object (even a small one) were to hit a populated area, the death toll would be apocalyptic. Large impactor? Worldwide devastation and possibly an end to civilization as we know it, which is all the more reason to keep looking and working on planetary defense systems.
The problem with many doomsday scenarios: when contemplating ways to defend our planet, many planners always give several months and often years of notice. Problem: asteroids have a way of sneaking up on us, which is not hard to do considering that there are more people working at the average McDonald's than there are full-time asteroid hunters manning the world's observatories. Earlier this week, it was reported that Los Alamos had completed a study wherein nuclear weapons showed promise in deflecting asteroids but, for many, such a scenario should be considered last resort, not first option.
The widely agreed upon solution to this problem: early detection, which can only be achieved through a vigilant watch of the skies by professionals and amateurs alike, which NASA is looking to promote through its Target Asteroids! program.
Looking to do some sky watching in the Cleveland area? As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock if you plan to head out and look at the stars this coming week. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
For more info:
Hit the 'subscribe' button for automatic email updates when I write something new!