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.”
Chodas said the meteor strike in Russia is “like Mother Nature is showing us what a small one — a tiny one, really — can do.”
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.
“NASA has recognized that asteroids and meteoroids and orbital debris pose a bigger problem than anybody anticipated decades ago,” Cooke said.
Schweickart’s B612 Foundation — named after the asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince” — has been unwilling to wait on the sidelines and is putting together a privately funded mission to launch an infrared telescope that would orbit the sun to hunt and track asteroids.
Its need cannot be underestimated, Schweickart warned. Real life is unlike movies such as “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact.” Scientists will need to know 15, 20 or 30 years in advance of a killer rock’s approach to undertake an effective asteroid-deflection campaign, he said, because it would take a long time for the spacecraft to reach the asteroid for a good nudge.
“That’s why we want to find them now,” he said.
As Chodas observed Friday, “It’s like a shooting gallery here.”
Associated Press writer Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
B612 Foundation: http://b612foundation.org