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Report says scientists lack funds to meet Congressional goal for finding smaller “near-Earth asteroids”

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meteor craterA new federal report on space rock detection and hazard mitigation strategies paints a disquieting picture of the current state of knowledge about how to protect the planet from a "near-Earth object" (NEO) impact that could potentially cause far more regional damage than the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, or the recent quake in Haiti.

The bad news in the report from the National Research Council is that the $4 million in annual funding that several major NEO detection programs receive is nowhere near enough to meet a 2020 deadline set by Congress in 2005 for scientists to find 90 percent of near-Earth objects greater than 140-meters in diameter—space rocks of this size are likely to cause regional, rather than global, damage, though global damage is still possible. The mandate has yet to receive any funding. One of these regional-threat objects strikes Earth on average every 30,000 years, the report states.

Even $10 million in annual funds "would not allow completion on any timescale" of the Congressionally mandated survey of the threats, according to the report. Meeting Congress’s goal would take at least $50 million in annual funding; even better would be $250 million in annual funding, with the latter allowing for completion of the survey and support for a space mission to test a mitigation plan.

Near-Earth objects are defined in the report as asteroids or comets with orbits approaching Earth’s to within about one-third the average distance of Earth from the sun (0.33 AU, which is equivalent to150 million kilometers).

The two-part study and report, focused on NEO detection and NEO hazard mitigation, was sponsored by NASA at the request of Congress. Faith Vilas of the MMT Observatory at Mount Hopkins, Ariz., headed up the former effort, and Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park, headed up the latter.

The best way to come close to meeting the 2020 deadline is to combine a space-based telescope with a ground-based one to complete a survey by 2022 in the best-funded, best-case scenario, the report states. Alternatively, a ground-based survey alone could find the target objects "well before 2030" under a less aggressive funding approach. One candidate for the ground-based survey would be the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), set to be constructed in Chile and designed for various science missions.

Along with a U.S.-led international "targeted research program" on impact hazard and mitigation of NEOs, the report also calls for continued funding of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., as well as the current federally funded NEO search projects. Continued operation of the radar systems at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (the former requires about $12 million annually) would also help scientists obtain highly accurate data on detected objects that would help in assessing their threat level, as well as their surface properties, mineralogy and rotation properties.

Mitigation methods assessed in the report are considered "relatively new and immature." They include simply evacuating residents from a threatened area, a tugboat-like spacecraft to nudge an object just far enough off its trajectory to avoid an Earth collision, smashing a spacecraft into an object to change its direction, or detonating a nuclear warhead on an object. Any violent blasting or impacting of a space rock heading toward Earth carries the risk that one of the fragments could still collide with the planet. None of these protection approaches could be readied on short notice, although the civil defense and impacting spacecraft are the closest to ready, the report states.

The survey to meet the 2005 mandate could be completed in 10 years with sufficient funding, A’Hearn says, and then it would take five years to work up a space mission to deflect any rock discovered to be on route to an Earth impact.

The report also notes newer research which shows that objects as small as 30 to 50 meters across could also be very destructive if they struck Earth, so the report authors recommend that surveys should try to find objects this small too, without compromising the effort to find the objects 140-meters in diameter and larger.

"The smaller events are far more frequent," A’Hearn says, adding that they are preventable.

Scientific and public awareness of the threat of space rocks has dawned slowly over the past several decades. Wake-up calls have included the late 1970s discovery of a crater near the Yucatan that was later linked by many with the extinction event that snuffed out non-avian dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and many plant and invertebrate animal species. The 1994 collision of pieces of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, some of them up to two kilometers in diameter, with Jupiter raised awareness that our solar system is still the site of some huge, violent impacts, even though the solar system’s "late heavy bombardment " ended about four billion years ago (look at the moon for naked-eye evidence of that). In the past couple of years, the media has focused on various close NEO approaches, including a 350-meter asteroid called Apophis, which is swinging close in 2029 and again in 2036. An Apophis impact is now ruled out for 2029 and is "quite unlikely" in 2036, according to the report.

Still, planetary scientists haven’t been asleep at the wheel and have continued searches with available funds and telescopes. In the past 10 years, 85 percent of the 940 or so largest space rocks (with diameters of one kilometer or more and that would cause global devastation, not just regional damage) that could smash into Earth have been found. None of them is expected to impact Earth in the next century, and scientists expect to find most of the rest of these asteroids and comets in the next few years.

Image: meteor crater via NASA Near Earth Object Program

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 2:17 am 01/23/2010

    The risk to humanity of being wiped out by extraterrestrial impact has not increased since the population witnessed the collision of Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter, only popular concern and therefore potential funding support were increased. Population growth and the affects of climate change seem to be more pressing issues for human survival. Not that our recent awareness of this risk should be ignored, but it would be more rational to first develop a reliable and responsive mitigation method before funding a complete inventory of potential risks. Without a realistic mitigation strategy awareness offers no real benefit, except that astronomers could better observe our possible demise.

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  2. 2. MCMalkemus 3:52 am 01/23/2010

    The universe has a function that prevents most warring species from eventually developing interstellar travel: extinction event asteroids.

    Species that focus too much on fighting with one another over trivial differences are eventually wiped out.

    This fact assures us that most space faring species are benevolent.

    Will we eventually develop interstellar technologies? Or will we chose to continue our ignorant ways?

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  3. 3. Michael Hanlon 5:34 am 01/23/2010

    I’m confused by that logic (non-aggressors evade extinction events). How would a civilization that doesn’t develop planet busting technology defend itself from asteroidal events? The reverse is probably more likely. A bomb loving race that learns to live at arms length from each other is more likely to be the one which could defend itself.
    ,I agree though that the probability of life equation developed by Drake needs to add intrasystem extinction probability as a factor to influence the calculation result. Sagan said there’d be billions and billions on advanced civilizations out there based on that equation. Turns out some recently realized factors when added to the mix make survival to interstellar transport let alone communication is non-existent. We are only now at the communicate level.

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  4. 4. Michael Hanlon 5:45 am 01/23/2010

    Now I scream. $4 million is all they fund the search with? That wouldn’t even buy the lens on the Kepler probe! And though I can’t say knowing that a star 20,000 light years away may have an earth like planet circling it (none found yet) We’ve spent dozens of millions on that effort as well. Get your priorities straight astronomers.
    Map the sh*t out of our local neighborhood, know who all our neighbors are be they automobile size or city sized. Once those celestial traffic reports are a routine requiring only monitoring for changes and updates, then go looking afield to your hearts content. How many more rocks would we know about if we’d spent the money used on SETI and catalogued rocks instead. Or, would that have been too boring an effort?

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  5. 5. doug 1 7:35 am 01/23/2010

    Because we can’t see many of the asteroids on earth crossing orbits (some are dark and some are smallish, and some are just too far away at present) astronomers can only guess at the true number of potential impact causing asteroids and other bodies out there. The geologic record, which at one time was interpreted in such a way that impact craters were once considered the rarest of landforms, is showing that infact game changing impacts were far more frequent, disturbingly so, it might turn out. Certainly it would be the worst day our civilization has ever had, were we to experience even a smallish "planet killer" or the type that may very well abound in our region of space.
    A genuine solution, and one that would address many of our technological potentials, would be to create a launching system to replace our archaic balistic missile based system which was created during the cold war when balistic missiles of the kind that could be hidden in underground silos across the globe, were the primary focus. Now we can build electromagnetic launching system or truly huge heavy lifting launching systems (humans themselves can be sent up quite nicely using systems such as Burt Rutan’s space taxi) which can put into orbit the kinds of materials and structures that will allow for humans to live in space for significant amounts of time, generating ‘artificial gravity’, and having adequate shielding and fuel, and avoiding the costly re-supply needs that plague the budgetary and operational aspects of today’s space endeavors and which effectively block any thought of industry becoming active in space developement. Once a platform of suitable design is in orbit, the quest for space based solar energy, asteroid mining, and exploration of the Moon and Mars would be natural progressions and extensions of our new-found potential, as would our capacity to observe, and then do something about, any potential impacts from asteroids, comets or what-have-you, but all of it stems from more money, intelligently spent with a sense of scale and permanence, and that will always be prohibitively expensive as long as we spend the majority of our efforts in designing in the current mode where a pound of matter put into low earth orbit costs $20,000 where if we used our noggins and more appropriate physics we could be launching next year at a cost of less than $5.00 per pound.

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  6. 6. hotblack 8:14 am 01/23/2010

    4 million? We round by more than that when discussing how much to spend securing the business interests of the wealthy in this country. I can’t start a tiny bicycle company for 4 million. A single house in this town starts at 4 million! That’s our nations planetary defense budget???

    I certainly hope when an asteroid finds us, it’s either a big planet-splitter, or it’s enough small ones to make our dumb species take a moment (even if it’s our last one) to realize just how stupid it’s been, and for what.

    First contact with an alien race would to it as well, but that’s a lot less likely.

    I’m with Doug. Solid rockets are absurdly inefficient, and need to go.

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  7. 7. tharriss 8:16 am 01/23/2010

    Hi Doug, all that sounds great, but it just seems more likely to me that if it was as simple and cost effective as you describe, we’d be doing it… I bet there are some real world problems with implementing such a plan that either make it impossible given current technology levels, or not as inexpensive as you are describing.

    and jtdwyer, actually you miss part of the point… part of the political motivation (which is hard to drum up!) for buidling expensive deflection technologies would be actually identifying something that is likely to hit us. Until we find something, you aren’t going to be able to convince people to spend money on developing much of a solution. It is hard enough to convince people of evolution or global warming, when the evidence is already extremely clear, imagine the resistance you’d get to massive spending on asteroid deflection when we haven’t actually located one that is going to hit us….

    Of course we can only hope when we locate one, we have time left to develop the mitigating technologies!

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  8. 8. sbafarms 12:36 pm 01/23/2010

    How about the whole concept is stupid, wasteful and unnecessary ? Is there really nothing more pressing to be funded? Mitigating Technologies? Really, what the hell does that mean other than making defense contractors more money, more funding of absurd projects for the scientific community? Big Picture Issue Kids. Of the billions spent on this type of technology, how many people could have been fed or how many countries could have been assisted with sustainable projects, such as WATER? Get our priorities straight or the game is over for all of us. Ponder that in your labs for a while.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 3:23 pm 01/23/2010

    sbafarms – OK, I’ll say it: unfortunately, the most effective way to prevent the suffering of unfed children and decrease humanity’s impact on the environment is to decrease population. I have no idea how this should be accomplished, but it must be done or my children, theirs and those not yet born are doomed to suffer the consequences. Compassionate feeding of children living in unsustainable environments only ensures future suffering, just like rebuilding on unstable ground.

    Personal self-interest and corruption of political systems ensure that the government (taxpayer) funding will always be spent inappropriately. One can only argue for improvement, and friends of astronomy can only do their share. Of course, funding of science projects has primarily been supported by military interests since before WWII, so don’t complain too loudly…

    I can only hope that humanity can survive the future challenges already in progress. I wish I had done more…

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  10. 10. doug 1 4:14 pm 01/23/2010

    Tharriss; what could be more ‘real world’ than expanding our civilization into the space faring age now while we have the technology to do so? Let’s say we wait until we eradicate some other problem, but in doing so we slip into a world wide technological industrial level that the building of appropriately scaled launch systems becomes even more difficult. If you know history you know that windows of opportunity are not something a society can always simply defer. For example, consider the naval capabilities of China in the late 15th, earth 16th century when it had the capacity to build fleets of ‘appropriately scaled’ ovean going ships to travel the world, which they did, but due to internal decisions the entire fleet and even the capacity to build these ships, was shall we say ‘mothballed’ and China withdrew into its own society, to maintain the status quo. Almost 500 years later, China once again has shipyards capable of producing ocean capable ships, and the ability to express itself globally. If we turn away from space developement now while we have the capacity, and wait until..well, fill in the blank…we should be aware that history does not stand still and there is no guarantee that we’ll be at this elevated level interminably, nor that the goal of space will be reachable by simply saying "we can do it later".
    To say that if the ideas I suggest are probably not very good or we’d be doing them already is a handly way dismiss any venture and is as true now as it was for Spain in 1492.
    The world’s collective capacity to great things has never been better, and the asteroid with our name on it undoubtedly is out there.

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 4:53 pm 01/23/2010

    Doug 1 – If only there was another New World out there, awaiting conquest by humanity, or at least our own civilization. I doubt that we can last that long, even if that world was discovered today. When I was born in 1950, the world population was about 2.5B. It is now estimated to be nearly 7B. If this is the plan for survival, I can only wish we had done more…

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  12. 12. MCMalkemus 4:16 am 01/24/2010

    sbafarms:

    Sure, short-term solutions seem most important to us, because our limited human life-spans are a drop in the ocean. Yet for our long-term survival/thriving, we must think long-term.

    I’ve seen the movie HOME on YouTube, and agree with you fully: a third of the world’s population is in big trouble soon. Water is running out, especially in India and Bangladesh.

    The only realistic solution to prevent this happening again is to limit population growth. The problem is that we are like bacteria in a petri dish in this regard: we never stop multiplying, and exhaust our food and water supplies. Any solutions?

    Since billions are… are going to die from lack of water and food, we must opt for long-term survival. Humans can learn from the large-scale disaster that is beginning to manifest, if we are still around 100,000 years from now… and perhaps in the future, it will never happen again due to human ignorance.

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  13. 13. MCMalkemus 4:25 am 01/24/2010

    Michael Hanlon, the logic is this: if we had not been wasting vast amounts of resources focused on war for the past 500 years, we’d be flying to the stars today, most likely, focusing our creativity on something higher.

    In addition, many experts feel that using nuclear explosives to divert an asteroid is not an option, but would only create lots of smaller asteroids to rain down upon us.

    Carl Sagan: ""I never said it. Honest." – The opening line in his last book called "Billions and Billions." He was right — the phrase was coined by Johnny Carson imitating him."

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  14. 14. rougarou 8:07 am 01/24/2010

    Funds and grants, it’s all about the money. Give them enough and they’ll find asteroids in Chicago and Harlem and D.C. According to the national debt counter, we spend over 2 million a minute in this country but on important things like turtle tunnels and riding trails or chasing homeless polar bears. We don’t need to explore other worlds, we need to prop up this one which currently is "upside down". Everyone wants money, I would just like to keep what I have. If I knew an asteroid would slam into Washington D.C. I would donate today.

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  15. 15. Sinick 1:54 pm 01/24/2010

    I am not surprised because there’s no immediate profit to be realized from this endeavor.

    Now if there were sizable quantities of gold, lithium, oil or coal on these asteroids it would be a different story altogether. In this scenario, Congress would fund the round up of the asteroids and corporations would reap the profits.

    Maybe scientists should change tack and pursue funding for asteroid research by luring investors with the promise of riches? The promise would have to include a super-quick ROI though or their requests would be denied. Herein lies the heart of the problem.

    Here’s another idea: scientists could use a "chicken little" approach and request funding from the many corporations who profit from disaster and suffering (e.g.: Halliburton, Blackwater, et. al.).

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  16. 16. eco-steve 12:57 pm 01/25/2010

    The space guard program should be made international, which would augment it’s funding, because the problem affects the whole of mankind.

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  17. 17. synthesis 3:30 pm 01/25/2010

    We will avoid ‘expensive’ scientific research a the new
    ‘democratic’ (ONLY for corporations benefit) world aproved by our supreme court few days ago. The complete irrational
    arguments used for this distortion of the notion of citizens (human citizens) First Amendment will continue for natural catastrophic events (‘small’ asteroids collisions for example)
    if the deadly consecuences of them represent better profits
    that technologically avoiding them.

    Link to this
  18. 18. synthesis 3:32 pm 01/25/2010

    We will avoid ‘expensive’ scientific research a the new
    ‘democratic’ (ONLY for corporations benefit) world aproved by our supreme court few days ago. The complete irrational
    arguments used for this distortion of the notion of citizens (human citizens) First Amendment will continue for natural catastrophic events (‘small’ asteroids collisions for example)
    if the deadly consecuences of them represent better profits
    that technologically avoiding them.

    Link to this
  19. 19. JamesG 6:49 pm 01/25/2010

    "In the past couple of years, the media has focused on various close NEO approaches, including a 300-kilometer asteroid called Apophis, which is swinging close in 2029 and again in 2036."

    Is Apophis a 300-kilometer or a 300-meter asteroid?

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  20. 20. mo98 11:34 am 01/28/2010

    Science is only as expensive as the lack of interest in it. A quick look at the link about the Yucatan Crater in this article reveals a story written by an author who seems to be shunned, much like Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s Analysis of Interstellar Dust. Surely mathematical projects such as locating eto trajectories may be at the mercy of competing fields of research, by interest groups possibly already aware of the problem, but placing science above survival of voters? How much engineering do we need to support science as an eye opening industry?

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  21. 21. hsabsolute 6:14 pm 01/28/2010

    Am I missing something or does the NEO "passing clearance" criteria of .33 AU (roughly 30 million miles) noted in the article not translate well into 150,ooo,000 km? In the last few years, we watched a fairly significantly sized NEO pass at (+/- ) roughly the lunar orbital radius. We "missed" that one until it was just a few days distant.

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  22. 22. JamesG 7:33 pm 01/28/2010

    "Initially, Apophis was thought to have a 2.7 percent chance of impacting Earth in 2029. Additional observations of the asteriod ruled out any possibility of an impact in 2029. However, the asteroid is expected to make a record-setting — but harmless — close approach to Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029, when it comes no closer than 18,300 miles above Earth’s surface. "

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  23. 23. Michael Hanlon 12:10 am 01/29/2010

    To MCMalkemus:
    Your first posting says the universe has a function..planets with warring… then say, "This fact.."? You have elevated your supposition into a fact we are to base our decisions on? And, what data do you base the existence of this universal function on? Logically your presentation fails right there.
    . Your next posting tells us to learn now from the impending population disaster. That’s a real winner. Let me know what the lessons we learn from the end of the world are so we can apply those precepts now.
    . Next, toward me, you cite the experts in asteroid collisions. Oh really? There are those out there who have real world experience in the subject and can be called ‘experts’? Those self same experts claim only two avenues of approach to asteroid collisions: divert or destroy. That shows how closed their minds are. The third option is the one I propose, capture them, use them, learn from those lessons.
    . And as far as not warring for the past 500 years would have us in space already, How do you skip the 300 years between Newton and Goddard?
    . And Sagan did say biilions and trillions when annunciating the the number of star systems in the galaxy. Carson cut him some slack by limiting it to billions and billions. Guess you had to be there to know the truth.Are you a Doublespeak adverb reduction engineer from Oceania’s Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth?

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  24. 24. eco-steve 5:38 pm 04/12/2010

    Having seen a large asteroid ricochet off the upper atmosphere in 1975 in central France, I need no persuading on the reality of earth grazers. It is evident that this should be an international spaceguard project, funded by all countries, as a collision could occur anywhere on the planet, on land or at sea.
    This sighting was reported to astronomers in Britain, and where the asteroid is now is anybody’s guess!

    Link to this

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