Asked what America could do if a meteorite like the one that hit Russia last month was three weeks away from hitting New York, NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr.’s answer was “pray.” And we probably wouldn’t even get three weeks’ warning. NASA currently lacks the ability to find and track “small” meteors like the 55-foot one that hit Russia. If we did see one coming and it was still far enough away, apparently the current plan is to ram a spacecraft into it and knock it off course. NASA has only $20.5 million budgeted to detect near-Earth objects, and Bolden suggested at today's House Committee hearing that Congress isn’t taking the problem seriously enough.
The New York Daily News highlights the full exchange that prompted Bolden's response of "pray":
"What would we do if you detected even a small one like the one that detonated in Russia headed for New York in three weeks? What would you do?" Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) asked.
The witnesses turned to look at each other.
"Bend over and what?" Posey pressed, drawing chuckles from the hearing room.
"The answer to you is, if it's coming in three weeks, pray," Bolden said.
Not too comforting.
And, Ruh roh:
He said Americans might want the government to be able to zap asteroids -but the government has not provided the money to do so.
"We are where we are today because you all told us to do something - and between the Administration and the Congress ... the funding did not come," he said.
The United States and the rest of the world simply do not have the ability to detect many "small" meteors like the one that exploded over Russia, which has been estimated at roughly 55 feet long. Donald Yeomans, Manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office and the author of "Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us," told CBSNews.com that there are a lot of these small meteors in orbit, and little early warning system in place to detect them.
Yeomans said the most efficient way to find them would be a space-based infrared telescope. This has two benefits: One, the sun would not serve to prevent detection of some objects, and two, the infrared nature of the telescope would mean it would be effective in detecting them. (Part of the reason there was no warning for the Russia meteor is that the sun blinded the satellites.) CBS News contributor and City University of New York physics professor Michio Kaku calls such a telescope a "no brainer," in part because it comes at the relatively low cost of a few hundred million dollars.
"In Russia, if that asteroid had held intact for a few more seconds, it would have hit the ground with the force of 20 Hiroshima bombs," he said on CBS This Morning Tuesday, arguing the investment was worth it. Yeomans also called for ground-based wide field optical telescopes that could scan vast regions of the sky each night.
Another more costlier solution was also discussed, it involved mining asteroids in space, a potential for investment deals and would cost "billions." Talk revolved around landing on and mining this particular asteroid: "An asteroid known as Apophis, which is about 1,000 feet wide and has the potential to wipe a nation off the face of the planet in a direct hit, is expected to come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029."
A note of some comfort, again, from the Daily News:
"The good news is that the biggest, kilometer-plus objects — like the one suspected of killing off the dinosaurs — typically only hit once every 20,000 years."