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NASA can't pay for killer asteroid hunt

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070305/ap_on_sc/killer_asteroids;_ylt=AnFH3BhSJJCQv9QzLBqLS4zMWM0F NASA can t pay for killer asteroid hunt By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2007
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070305/ap_on_sc/killer_asteroids;_ylt=AnFH3BhSJJCQv9QzLBqLS4zMWM0F

      NASA can't pay for killer asteroid hunt

      By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer 1 hour, 36
      minutes ago

      WASHINGTON - NASA officials say the space agency is
      capable of finding nearly all the asteroids that might
      pose a devastating hit to Earth, but there isn't
      enough money to pay for the task so it won't get done.

      The cost to find at least 90 percent of the 20,000
      potentially hazardous asteroids and comets by 2020
      would be about $1 billion, according to a report NASA
      will release later this week. The report was previewed
      Monday at a Planetary Defense Conference in
      Washington.

      Congress in 2005 asked NASA to come up with a plan to
      track most killer asteroids and propose how to deflect
      the potentially catastrophic ones.

      "We know what to do, we just don't have the money,"
      said Simon "Pete" Worden, director of NASA's Ames
      Research Center.

      These are asteroids that are bigger than 460 feet in
      diameter — slightly smaller than the Superdome in New
      Orleans. They are a threat even if they don't hit
      Earth because if they explode while close enough — an
      event caused by heating in both the rock and the
      atmosphere — the devastation from the shockwaves is
      still immense. The explosion alone could have with the
      power of 100 million tons of dynamite, enough to
      devastate an entire state, such as Maryland, they
      said.

      The agency is already tracking bigger objects, at
      least 3,300 feet in diameter, that could wipe out most
      life on Earth, much like what is theorized to have
      happened to dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But even
      that search, which has spotted 769 asteroids and
      comets — none of which is on course to hit Earth — is
      behind schedule. It's supposed to be complete by the
      end of next year.

      NASA needs to do more to locate other smaller, but
      still potentially dangerous space bodies. While an
      Italian observatory is doing some work, the United
      States is the only government with an
      asteroid-tracking program, NASA said.

      One solution would be to build a new ground telescope
      solely for the asteroid hunt, and piggyback that use
      with other agencies' telescopes for a total of $800
      million. Another would be to launch a space infrared
      telescope that could do the job faster for $1.1
      billion. But NASA program scientist Lindley Johnson
      said NASA and the White House called both those
      choices too costly.

      A cheaper option would be to simply piggyback on other
      agencies' telescopes, a cost of about $300 million,
      also rejected, Johnson said.

      "The decision of the agency is we just can't do
      anything about it right now," he added.

      Earth got a scare in 2004, when initial readings
      suggested an 885-foot asteroid called 99942 Apophis
      seemed to have a chance of hitting Earth in 2029. But
      more observations showed that wouldn't happen.
      Scientists say there is a 1-in-45,000 chance that it
      could hit in 2036.

      They think it would mostly likely strike the Pacific
      Ocean, which would cause a tsunami on the U.S. West
      Coast the size of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean
      wave.

      John Logsdon, space policy director at George
      Washington University, said a stepped-up search for
      such asteroids is needed.

      "You can't deflect them if you can't find them,"
      Logsdon said. "And we can't find things that can cause
      massive damage."

      ___

      On the Net:

      NASA's Near Earth Object Web site:
      http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/neo/

      Planetary Defense Conference: http://www.aero.org/conferences/planetarydefense/
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