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2 space rocks hours apart point out danger

By Marcia Dunn

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 10:11 p.m. MST

In this photo provided by Chelyabinsk.ru a meteorite contrail is seen over Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. A meteor streaked across the sky of Russia?s Ural Mountains on Friday morning, causing sharp explosions and reportedly injuring around 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru)

Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A space rock even bigger than the meteor that exploded like an atom bomb over Russia could drop out of the sky unannounced at any time and wreak havoc on a city. And Hollywood to the contrary, there isn't much the world's scientists and generals can do about it.

But some former astronauts want to give the world a fighting chance.

They're hopeful Friday's cosmic coincidence — Earth's close brush with a 150-foot asteroid, hours after the 49-foot meteor struck in Russia — will draw attention to the dangers lurking in outer space and lead to action, such as better detection and tracking of asteroids.

"After today, a lot of people will be paying attention," said Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1969, helped establish the planet-protecting B612 Foundation and has been warning NASA for years to put more muscle and money into a heightened asteroid alert.

Earth is menaced all the time by meteors, which are chunks of asteroids or comets that enter Earth's atmosphere. But many if not most of them are simply too small to detect from afar with the tools now available to astronomers.

Scientists believe there are anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million "near-Earth" asteroids comparable in size to DA14 or bigger out there. But less than 1 percent have actually been spotted. Astronomers have catalogued only 9,600 of them, of which nearly 1,300 are bigger than 0.6 miles.

Earth's atmosphere gets hit with 100 tons of junk every day, most of it the size of sand, and most of it burning up before it reaches the ground, according to NASA.

"These fireballs happen about once a day or so, but we just don't see them because many of them fall over the ocean or in remote areas. This one was an exception," NASA's Jim Green, director of planetary science, said of the meteor in Russia.

A 100- to 130-foot asteroid exploded over Siberia in 1908 and flattened 825 square miles of forest, while the rock that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was a monster 6 miles across.

The chances of Earth getting hit without warning by one of the big ones are "extremely low, so low that it's ridiculous. But the smaller ones are quite different," Schweickart said. He warned: "If we get hit by one of them, it's most likely we wouldn't have known anything about it before it hit."

All this points up the need for more money for tracking of near-Earth objects, according to Schweickart and the former space shuttle and station astronaut who now heads up the B612 Foundation, Ed Lu.

A few years ago, Schweickart and others recommended NASA launch a $250 million-a-year program to survey asteroids and work up a deflection plan.

After 10 years of cataloging, the annual price tag could drop to $75 million, they said.

"Unfortunately, NASA never acted on any of our recommendations," he lamented. "So the result of it is that instead of having $250 million a year and working on this actively, NASA now has $20 million. ... It's peanuts."

Congress immediately weighed in on Friday.

"Today's events are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House science, space and technology committee. He called for a hearing in the coming weeks.

Bill Cooke, head of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said the space agency takes asteroid threats seriously and has poured money into looking for ways to better spot them. Annual spending on asteroid-detection at NASA has gone from $4 million a few years ago to $20 million now.

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