- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

The day before the president addressed NASA in January, outlining a new direction in manned space flight, astronomers detected a large asteroid that appeared to be headed straight toward Earth. Further studies showed that the Near Earth Object (NEO) would miss by a wide margin, as it eventually did. Who knew?

Thousands of other NEOs are still out there. While none of the ones so far discovered pose an imminent threat, any of them could cause catastrophic damage to the planet. Large NEOs greater than 1 kilometer in diameter (about half a mile) would wipe out much of the planet. Mid-sized NEOs of about 150 meters in diameter could destroy a city or a state. Smaller NEOs of about 10 meters in diameter pose a different sort of threat. They explode in the atmosphere with the force of nuclear detonations, which could conceivably cause new nuclear powers in the midst of a confrontation to trigger their arsenals.

Earlier this week, a group of scientists and space experts convened at a conference in California to discuss ways of meeting that threat. There are no easy solutions, since there are so many variables involved. Assuming that such an object was detected in time for it to be intercepted, then a variety of strategies could be attempted to deflect it, ranging from nudging (or even destroying) it with a nuclear weapon to using a spacecraft to tug it out of the way.

One glaring gap is the current lack of guidance on how NEO warnings should be passed up the chain of command. Scientists could help policy-makers prepare for that eventuality through better surveys of threatening objects and continued studies of their composition. In January, NASA’s Stardust craft collected samples from the Comet Wild during a close flyby. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission will soon blast off for an eventual rendezvous with Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and, in December, NASA’s Deep Impact probe is scheduled to launch toward Comet P/Tempel.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher recently offered a bill that would expand NASA’s Spaceguard Survey to include NEOs greater than 100 meters in diameter and allocate $40 million to that end. Before the next NEO near-miss, policy-makers should help establish a better mechanism for notifying U.S. command and control.

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