Despite the Earth being buzzed by a meteor and an asteroid within the space of a single day last month, the U.S. government is still 20 years away from meeting the benchmark set by Congress for tracking deadly objects from outer space, NASA’s top official told a House hearing Tuesday.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing was convened in the wake of the spectacular meteor that exploded over Russia on the same day as a close encounter with a far larger asteroid called 2012 DA 14. The testimony from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, White House science adviser John Holdren and Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Command, was not exactly “reassuring,” in the words of committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican.
Given the short- and long-term budgetary constraints, it will be a long while before the United States can reliably chart the bulk of the near-Earth objects between 140 meters and a kilometer in width — as mandated by Congress, the witnesses said.
“At the present budget levels, it will be 2030 before we are able to reach the 90 percent level as prescribed by Congress to detect and characterize [those] asteroids,” said Mr. Bolden. And just a tiny percent of the smaller 30- to 100-meter asteroids have been detected, he added, although most are larger than the meteor that shattered windows and lit up the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15.
“We are trying very diligently, as I said before, with the president’s budget to be in a position where we can respond,” Mr. Bolden said.
The Feb. 15 meteor blast took researchers and astronomers by surprise. The meteor was estimated at about 50 feet in diameter and had the power equivalent to a 300-kiloton bomb.
Mr. Holdren said the cataloguing job could be accelerated with the launch of a infrared-sensing telescope to track asteroids and other cosmic bodies from space. The cost, Mr. Holdren said, would be as much as $750 million, but could reduce the meteor survey time to as soon as six to eight years.
Despite the attention garnered by last month’s near-misses, the officials said that major collisions of Earth with sizable chunks of space debris remain a rare occurrence. NASA’s Mr. Bolden explained that on average 100 tons of space materials, including asteroids, hit the Earth’s atmosphere each day and the one that detonated over Russian skies happens “very rarely on human time scales.”
“The probability of any sizeable [near-earth object] impacting the Earth anytime in the next 100 years is remote,” said Mr. Bolden.
The International Space Station Team that includes a number of European nations, Russia, Japan, Canada and the United States has discussed ways to combat asteroids that are on track to hit the Earth.
“The detection network we already have is highly international in character,” Mr. Holdren said.
The officials did not dismiss the Hollywood scenario that a nuclear device may one day be needed to destroy or deflect an incoming bit of hostile space junk — but that early detection is critical.
Asked by Rep. Bill Posey, Florida Republican, what the government could do if a large asteroid was detected only three weeks before impact, Mr. Bolden replied: “The answer to you is, ‘If it’s coming in three weeks, pray. The reason I can’t do anything in the next three weeks is because for decades we have put [detection] off.’”