Experts call for expanded asteroid search
A panel of experts working at NASA’s request has recommended a bold new search for potentially dangerous asteroids, including smaller objects that could cause regional damage in an Earth impact. The price tag: At least $236 million.
The recommendation, which would launch a search effort far more expensive than the existing asteroid detection program, appears to have strong support among asteroid experts.
NASA already leads the way in hunting for large near-Earth objects, or NEOs, that could cause global destruction.
That effort, mandated by Congress, will be in the mop-up phase by 2008. NASA spends about $3.5 million per year on the program. Critics have long charged that NASA and other government agencies around the world are not doing enough to look for smaller NEOs, those less than 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter.
Though the smaller rocks would only have regional consequences, there are more of them, so the chances of an impact are higher, the critics reason. But the smaller rocks are harder and more costly to find.
The more refined hunt should start in 2008, the panelists conclude. It could be done with present technology and could find and catalog 90 percent of potentially threatening objects down to 153 yards (140 meters) by 2028.
The “Near-Earth Object Science Definition Team” report was published to a NASA Web site Tuesday with no fanfare.
“The report’s recommendations are not only in line with what we have been arguing for some time — it surpasses our expectations by far,” said Benny Peiser, a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University in Britain. Peiser has been a vocal critic of his own government’s lack of spending on asteroid detection and of other governments’ unwillingness to begin looking for smaller objects. The new report does not bind NASA into action, but astronomers are hopeful it will be the roadmap for an expanded effort to provide warning of potential future catastrophes. No asteroids are currently known to be on a collision course with the planet.
Pressure on Congress: “I’m hopeful the pressure will be brought to bear to initiate this next generation of search,” Donald Yeomans, vice-chair of the report, said in a telephone interview. The pressure, he said, would have to be applied to congressional staffers by astronomers and the public. Yeomans is head of the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. —Space.com