NASA underfunded to track killer asteroids
As covered in the Washington Post this week, NASA has released its latest report on their ability to locate and track dangerous objects in our solar system which have the potential to cross our orbit and possibly impact the Earth. (Full .pdf report is available from JPL here.) The news isn’t great. Congress tasked NASA several years ago with the job of locating the lion’s share of an estimated 20,000 asteroids and comets buzzing around the sun. The task was to be completed by 2020. To date, they’ve tagged roughly 6,000 of them but don’t see any way of completing the project on schedule. The reason, as always, comes down to money.
[E]ven though Congress assigned the space agency that mission four years ago, it never gave NASA the money to build the necessary telescopes, according to the report released Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences.
NASA calculated that to spot the asteroids as required by law would mean spending about $800 million between now and 2020, either with a new ground-based telescope or a space observation system, Johnson said. If NASA got only $300 million it could find most asteroids bigger than 1,000 feet across, he said.
But so far NASA has gotten neither sum.
It may never get the money, said John Logsdon, a space policy professor at George Washington University.
“The program is a little bit of a lame duck,” Logsdon said. There is not a big enough group pushing for the money, he said.
800 million is a big figure, and there’s no arguing that. Of course, when our deficit is measured in the trillions, with more being added on every day for everything from taking over the health care industry to detailed studies of grape genetics, maybe 800 million doesn’t seem like such a big figure to save us from Lucifer’s Hammer.
Even if it’s funded at that level for the currently defined mission, though, we have to wonder how they arrived at the search parameters being used. They have defined the size of the objects of interest as being greater than 460 feet in diameter. The most current estimates put the size of the Tunguska Event object as being less than 100 feet across. The fact that it went off as an air burst amplified the damage greatly, but it flattened more than 800 square miles of land. Such an object arriving today over any of the biggest cities in the world would destroy them utterly.
Also, we’re tracking the objects which are already in some form of erratic orbit around the sun. That’s certainly important, but the recent impact on Jupiter which took place earlier this year has apparently turned out to be a rogue. It wasn’t in an established orbit… it came crashing in from the outer reaches of the solar system on it’s very first pass and slammed into the gas giant. We don’t know how big the object was, but it punched a hole in Jupiter’s atmosphere the size of the Earth and we never saw it coming.
You’ll rarely hear me asking for the Federal government to spend more money on these pages, particularly in today’s distressed climate. But this is one area where taxpayer dollars could be put to good use for a change. 800 million isn’t that much of a price if there’s any chance of spotting and potentially deflecting another Tunguska.