Finding ‘planet killers' not that easy
The twin asteroid encounters on Friday — one benign, the other malign — laid bare both the uncertain reality of life in the cosmos — you never know when a space rock might come crashing down — and our planet's lack of defense against such threats.
NASA, the world's lead agency for detecting asteroid hazards, boosted its budget for the task from $6 million in 2011 to $21 million last year. And a NASA effort launched in 1998 has found 95 percent of potential "planet killers" at least a mile wide; none are headed for Earth. But still, many say the agency, and the world, are not doing enough.
Two congressmen seized the moment to promise hearings on the planet's space-threat readiness. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said in a statement that developing technology to track asteroids "is critical to our future," while Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, called meteor impacts the "only true preventable natural disaster." Even if we find one that will hit us, he said, "we might not be able to deflect it."
A private effort by two former astronauts to build a space telescope to spot smaller Earth-bound asteroids has raised a few million dollars, but is years away from launch — if it ever gets off the ground.
Plans to deflect asteroids are even more nascent. Proposals range from the sublime — spraying an asteroid with reflective paint so the sun nudges it — to the extreme — nuking it. With early detection and a few decades of lead time, even a tiny nudge could push an asteroid out of the tiny "keyhole" in space that would otherwise send it crashing to Earth.
The European Space Agency and NASA are in the early stages of plotting a mission to smash a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if humans can, in fact, push around a sizeable space rock. The project, called AIM-DART, has no timeline and no real budget.
— The Washington Post