- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

It's a lottery that no one wants to win, since everyone will lose it's also the one that the earth plays each day, as it rolls like a roulette ball around the sun. Someday zero, a devastating hit by a near earth object (NEO) an asteroid or comet will come up.
There are basically three types of threats from such objects, based on their size. Large objects (greater than 1 kilometer in size 1 kilometer is roughly 1/2 mile) have the potential to wipe out civilization. Thanks to its Spaceguard Survey, NASA has been cataloguing those objects (it's estimated that there are between 900 and 1,230 of them), and should have more than 90 percent of them identified by 2008. Midsized NEOs, about 150 meters in size, are large enough to penetrate the atmosphere, and so could wipe out cities or states. There are thought to be about 25,000 such objects, about 250 of which are thought to be potentially hazardous. Only about 300 of those NEOs have been catalogued. The smallest threatening NEOs, less than 10 meters in size, pose a different threat. Instead of penetrating through the atmosphere, they explode in it with nuclear-weapon sized detonations.
That happens about 30 times a year, according to Randall R. Correll, who addressed the national security implications posed by NEOs at a seminar hosted this week by the George Marshall Institute. It's an area of increasing concern, considering the growing number of nuclear powers. Last June, for instance, a Hiroshima-sized NEO explosion over the Mediterranean might have triggered a war had it hit over Kashmir.
Defense Department satellites detected that and other explosions. Mr. Correll pointed out that, while the DOD can distinguish between natural NEO explosions and nuclear war shots, it does not have procedures for processing that information or presenting it in a timely manner to interested parties, whether scientists or nuclear powers engaged in a standoff. Mr. Correll suggested that the DOD, or at least its civilian leaders, look into ways in which such information can be shared without compromising classified mission data.
It is understandable that the DOD is reluctant to share any information that could compromise its spy satellites. There's a constant tension between scientific openness and national security. However, midpoints can, and should, be sought, especially since preventing unnecessary nuclear wars would seem to be in the best interests of the DOD.
Also, policymakers should seriously consider a program to catalogue midsized NEOs. While the last thing that either the DOD or NASA needs is another worry, the threat posed by NEOs will only grow greater with time.



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