Killer Asteroid Tracking Project Faces Hurdles
By WARREN E. LEARY
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (March 11) - NASA can find and track most of the nearby asteroids that could hit and damage the Earth, but there is not enough money in its budget to finish the project within a 15-year deadline mandated by Congress , according to an agency report released Friday.
The report said there were about 20,000 asteroids and comets orbiting relatively close to our planet that could deliver blows ranging from destroying cities to ending all life.
These objects, 150 yards to more than a mile in diameter, represent about 20 percent of the asteroids and comets whose paths routinely pass between the Sun and the Earth’s orbit, it said. Rather than trying to detect, track, catalog and characterize all of the more than 100,000 “near Earth objects,” as Congress asked in a 2005 NASA authorization bill, the study said it would be more realistic to focus on those representing a real potential hazard.
But accomplishing this by 2020 would require using ground-based telescopes sponsored by other agencies for other purposes, possibly building a dedicated observatory for finding and tracking hazardous bodies and launching a spacecraft to observe the space around Earth from Venus. Such an undertaking, the report said, would cost more than $1 billion that the agency does not have. “Due to current budget constraints, NASA cannot initiate a new program at this time,” it said.
NASA runs a program called the Spaceguard Survey to track the largest potentially hazardous objects, those greater than 3,300 feet in diameter that could devastate most life if they hit. That is what scientists believe happened to the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. This program, using ground-based observatories, is budgeted at $4.1 million a year through 2012.
Donald K. Yeomans, director of the Spaceguard program, said that there were believed to be 1,100 of these larger objects and that the survey had cataloged about 73 percent of them. The initial goal of tracking 90 percent of them should be reached by 2010, more than a year later than originally planned, he said.
Mr. Yeomans, attending a planetary defense conference here last week at George Washington University, said the goal of surveying 90 percent of potentially hazardous objects could be reached more cheaply than in the NASA study by using only ground-based observatories. But Congress would have to change its goal from 2020 to 2026, he said.
Building, launching and operating a deep space orbiting infrared observatory to complete the task more quickly could cost an additional $700 million, he said.
William Ailor of the Aerospace Corporation, a not-for-profit Air Force research group that sponsored the planetary defense conference, said the problem of finding killer asteroids could be solved more easily if more countries were involved. Interest is growing, he said, noting that the European Space Agency is considering a mission called Don Quijote to test ways to deflect an asteroid.
“Should one nation, the United States, be responsible for the entire planet?” Mr. Ailor asked.