Skip to main content

Money needed to prevent big asteroid strike despite low chance

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House panel hears that chances of a big asteroid strike are one in 20,000
  • Despite low risk, the government needs to develop better defenses, experts say
  • Forced spending cuts are harming preparedness, government officials say
  • It will take years to build an effective system to deflect a large asteroid away from Earth

Washington (CNN) -- The good news is that the chances an asteroid big enough to destroy a continent or all of civilization will hit Earth this year are only one in 20,000, a congressional panel learned Tuesday.

The bad news is the government needs to spend billions of dollars in coming years for new technology to prevent such a possible catastrophe, regardless of the low probability, experts told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

"The odds are very small, but the potential consequences of such an event are so large, it makes sense to take the risk seriously," contended John Holdren, who directs President Barack Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

NASA scientists used Earth-based radar to produce these sharp views of the asteroid designated "2014 HQ124" on Sunday, June 8. NASA scientists used Earth-based radar to produce these sharp views of the asteroid designated "2014 HQ124" on Sunday, June 8.
All about asteroids
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Photos: All about asteroids Photos: All about asteroids
Will NASA land astronauts on asteroids?
How we can stop a 'doomsday' asteroid
Avoiding an asteroid armageddon
NASA has plan for big asteroids

Current efforts to detect and analyze possible space threats like the meteor that exploded over Russia last month, injuring more than 1,000 people and causing millions of dollars in damages, have made progress in identifying the threats, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the committee.

Welcome to the year of the comet

He said scientists have identified 95% of asteroids more than a half-mile in diameter -- the kind that threaten human existence if they strike Earth, like the six-mile-wide one believed to have wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago -- and found none on a collision course with the planet.

However, the detection efforts have been less successful for smaller meteors still capable of causing major loss of life and damage, such as the one over Russia.

Only 10% of meteors more than 150 yards wide -- dubbed "potential city killers" by Holdren -- have been detected, meaning more than 10,000 are out there without our knowledge, he said.

If scientists detected a major asteroid headed for Earth now, it would take at least five years to develop an effective defense system to either alter its course or possibly destroy it, no matter how much money was spent, according to Holdren and Bolden.

While you were working: An asteroid flew by

Government plans to bolster detection and mitigation capabilities include an infrared sensor that would orbit Venus, as well as a laser system or other method to deflect any threatening meteor away from Earth, they said.

"We really need to have space-borne assets," said Bolden of the infrared sensor that would cost more than $500 million.

Another NASA goal endorsed by Obama is to send an astronaut to an asteroid for the first time in history by 2025, a project that would cost $2 billion, he said.

Asked by panel members about the effects of forced spending cuts this year due to the inability of Congress to agree on fiscal issues, all the witnesses described heavy impacts.

"Just about my every working moment these days is consumed with this topic," Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, said about the spending cuts that took effect March 1. He added that "we are clearly less capable."

Bolden noted that NASA's budget for detecting Near Earth Objects has multiplied in recent years to reach more than $20 million in 2012. Now, he said, Congress needs to at least maintain such funding to prevent stagnation or, even worse, atrophy.

"This is really important and it has to be continuous," he said.

More space and science news from CNN Light Years

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Asteroids
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Fri October 18, 2013
One of the most dangerous asteroids on record zipped close by Earth in September.
updated 11:32 AM EDT, Sun June 2, 2013
The world is OK -- at least this time -- and scientists are psyched.
updated 11:25 PM EST, Fri February 15, 2013
It was hardly a doomsday event, but at 2:24 p.m. ET, an asteroid came pretty close to Earth.
nasa asteroide
Dr. Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society, the world's largest space interest group, says this could be more common than most might think.
The meteorite in Russia and the asteroid approaching are "completely unrelated," according to NASA. The trajectory of the meteorite differs substantially from asteroid 2012 DA14.
Don Yeomans spends his days monitoring the thousands of asteroids and comets swirling around the solar system, making sure that none of the bigger ones are on a collision course with Earth.
In the future, scientists want to be able to send spacecraft to study asteroids such as the one that will approach the Earth on Friday. A concept for these landers may look familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1970s.
updated 5:41 AM EST, Fri February 8, 2013
Don't consider this a count-down to doomsday, but on February 15 an asteroid is going to come pretty close to Earth.
The nonprofit B612 Foundation plans to raise money to build an infrared space telescope that would find and track asteroids with enough accuracy to see if they would collide with Earth.
updated 2:10 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
Scientists estimate there are tens of thousands of asteroids. Click through our gallery of asteroids to learn more.
updated 11:25 AM EST, Wed February 13, 2013
Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu is building a space telescope to detect asteroids that could hit earth in our lifetime.
updated 6:26 AM EST, Fri January 25, 2013
Scoping out space rocks for mining metals just became a two-horse race. Hala Gorani reports.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu January 24, 2013
Space, it has been said, is big. Really big. So how do we mine its potential?
updated 8:46 AM EST, Thu January 24, 2013
Look up at our nearest neighbor, the moon, and you'll see stark evidence of the dangerous neighborhood we live in. The Man in the Moon was sculpted by large-scale events, including many meteor and asteroid impacts.
updated 5:12 AM EST, Mon December 24, 2012
On a day when global doomsday predictions failed to pan out, NASA had more good news for the Earth: An asteroid feared to be on a collision course with our planet no longer poses a threat.
Read the latest space and science news on CNN's Light Years blog.
ADVERTISEMENT