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Subcommittee Questions NASA's Plan for Detecting Hazardous Asteroids

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2007

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(Washington, DC) The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics today examined the status of NASA's Near-Earth Object (NEO) survey program, reviewed the findings and recommendations of NASA's report to Congress, and sought to assess NASA's plans for complying with the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 regarding NEOs.

"NASA's NEO survey program is our 'insurance policy' against getting taken by surprise by an incoming asteroid. Much progress has been made in detecting and cataloging the largest NEOs over the last decade. However, much more remains to be done," said Udall. "We need to survey the smaller but still potentially hazardous asteroids that could do significant damage if they impact or explode above the Earth's surface. While the probability of such a direct hit is low, we in Congress have a responsibility for the safety of American citizens and we have directed NASA to come up with a survey plan. NASA didn't deliver a plan that would get the job done. I will continue to work with NASA and hold the agency accountable until their plan is complete."

NEOs are asteroids and comets of varying sizes whose orbits come near to that of the Earth, thereby posing a potential threat of collision at some point in the future. The Committee has a long history of bipartisan interest in the potential threat posed by NEOs, in opportunities offered by NEOs for scientific research, and as potential extraterrestrial sources of minerals and other materials over the long run. The Committee's involvement began in the early 1990s under then-Chairman George Brown with legislation directing NASA to conduct workshops on detecting and intercepting NEOs.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 mandated that NASA report to Congress on their plan to "detect, track, catalogue and characterize" NEOs of 140 meters or larger in size. However, the report NASA submitted did not identify a recommended option or budget plan beyond continuing doing what it is already doing - something that NASA concedes will not achieve the objectives mandated in the NASA Authorization Act.

"We need to survey potentially hazardous asteroids that are smaller than the ones cataloged to date, but which could do significant damage if they collide with the Earth," said Udall. "That is why Congress directed NASA to 'plan, develop, and implement' a NEO survey program for objects as small as 140 meters in size in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. I am very concerned that NASA's report to Congress failed to provide a recommended option and budget plan for such a survey, as directed by the Act. As committee chairman, it is my responsibility to make certain that this plan is completed and I will continue to closely monitor NASA's work until it is finished."

Thus, Subcommittee Chairman Udall and Members at today's hearing sought to clarify exactly how best to move forward in meeting the objectives mandated in the Act. Members also sought answers as to the roles that other agencies' existing and proposed observatories--such as the Arecibo Observatory, LSST, and PanSTARRs--can play in NEO detection and tracking. Arecibo, which is operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is facing funding cuts that could eventually result in its closure.

Astronomers estimate that 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids orbit within the vicinity of Earth and the Sun. On March 23, 1989, the 1989 FC asteroid came within 430,000 miles of Earth. 1989 FC carried the energy estimated to be more than 1000 one-megaton hydrogen bombs but it was only discovered after it had already made its closest approach to Earth. Asteroid 99942 Apophis, discovered in 2004, is estimated to be roughly 300 meters in diameter, and could pass as close as 29,470 km [about 18,300 miles] from the Earth's surface. The probability of impact in 2036, when the asteroid makes another close approach, is currently estimated to be 1/45,000.

For further information on this hearing, please visit the Committee's website at www.house.gov/science.

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