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Archive for Thursday, August 13, 2009

Report: NASA can’t keep up with tracking killer asteroids

August 13, 2009

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— NASA is charged with spotting most of the asteroids that pose a threat to Earth but doesn’t have the money to complete the job, a federal report says.

That’s because even though Congress assigned the space agency that mission four years ago, it never gave NASA the money to build the necessary telescopes, according to the report released Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences.

Specifically, the mission calls for NASA, by the year 2020, to locate 90 percent of the potentially deadly rocks hurtling through space. The agency says it’s been able to complete about one-third of its assignment with the current telescope system.

NASA estimates that there are about 20,000 asteroids and comets in our solar system that are potential threats. They are larger than 460 feet in diameter — slightly smaller than the Superdome in New Orleans. So far, scientists know where about 6,000 of these objects are.

Rocks between 460 feet and 3,280 feet in diameter can devastate an entire region, said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s manager of the near-Earth objects program. Objects bigger than that are even more threatening, of course.

Just last month astronomers were surprised when an object of unknown size and origin bashed into Jupiter and created an Earth-sized bruise that is still spreading. Jupiter does get slammed more often than Earth because of its immense gravity, enormous size and location.

Disaster movies like “Armageddon” and near misses in previous years may have scared people and alerted them to the threat. But when it comes to monitoring, the academy concluded “there has been relatively little effort by the U.S. government.”

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