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Arecibo Offers Unique Capability to Calculate Risk of Near Earth Objects, WItnesses Say

Press Release From: House Science Committee Republicans
Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2007

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Washington D.C. - Today, Members of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics were told that the devastating consequences of a large asteroid striking the Earth, while unlikely, demand continuation of NASA's surveying and cataloging of Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Members also learned that the Arecibo Observatory, located in Puerto Rico, provides a unique capability to precisely monitor the orbits of asteroids and comets that venture close to Earth. In 1998, NASA was tasked with detecting, tracking, cataloguing and monitoring NEOs, and while NASA has been largely successful in meeting the original goals of its mission, there are still numerous potentially threatening NEOs that go undetected.

Highlighting the magnitude of NASA's mission, Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Ranking Member Tom Feeney (R-FL) commended the work being done, saying, "NASA's Near Earth Object program, though very modest in scale compared to many of the agency's multi-billion dollar endeavors, is vitally important, and NASA has been doing an exemplary job standing-up an office and managing the nation's - and world's - only survey for potentially hazardous Earth-crossing asteroids and comets."

Witnesses at today's hearing emphasized the important role that the Arecibo Observatory plays in quickly calculating the orbit and likelihood of impact of NEOs. Arecibo is the largest and most sensitive ground-based radar telescope in the world, and has been used to successfully monitor NEOs and improve orbit models, as well as identify the mass, shape, trajectory, and size of NEOs. Unfortunately, the Arecibo facility, operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF), is only funded through fiscal year 2008, and is in serious jeopardy of shutting down.

Testifying before the Subcommittee, Representative Luis Fortuno (Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico), urged Congress to take measures in order to ensure Arecibo's continued funding. "As the world's largest and most powerful radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory is essential to monitoring and surveying Near Earth Objects," Fortuno said. "However, the National Science Foundation has threatened to close the Observatory. . .and NASA has so far been unwilling to assume funding of the radar required for tracking NEOs. Closing the Observatory will severely limit our ability to quickly and accurately refine the orbits of newly emerging threats, and reduce our monitoring capabilities."

Fortuno continued, "A potentially dangerous collision of an asteroid or comet is a very real threat. We must take action now to enhance our awareness to prevent a catastrophe. A better understanding of our skies will not only help us to comprehend the wonders of the Earth's environment, but is essential to assessing the dangers that may threaten our society. The world's most sensitive radio/radar telescope at Arecibo Observatory must not be closed."

Echoing the importance of Arecibo to monitoring NEOs, Dr. Donald K. Yeomans, Manager of the NEO Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, "(T)he planetary science community is in danger of losing one of its instrumental crown jewels."

In 1998, NASA initiated a program to detect 90 percent of all potentially hazardous asteroids and comets larger than 1 kilometer in diameter, within a decade. While NASA is on target meet this goal, scientists have suggested that smaller NEO's have the potential to cause great damage on a regional level, particularly if they hit a densely populated area.

Based on these recommendations, in 2005 the Science and Technology Committee expanded the mission of NASA's NEO program through legislation signed by the President, directing the agency to monitor all NEOs of 140 meters in diameter or larger. Members, today, emphasized the need for NASA to maintain a robust survey of NEOs as directed in the 2005 authorization.

Also testifying at today's hearing were: Dr. James Green, Science Mission Directorate, NASA; Dr. Scott Pace, Program Analysis and Evaluation, NASA; Dr. Donald B. Campbell, Cornell University; Dr. J. Anthony Tyson, University of California, Davis; and Mr. Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, B612 Foundation.

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