JPL: Defenders against Near Earth Objects

I’m writing up our first reader request!  Among several questions I received was who is watching out for asteroids/meteors/meteorites?  As you all are aware from the Russian meteorite in March of 2013, these things still come flying at us and pose a legitimate threat (just ask the dinosaurs).

So what kind of programs do we have to watch out for these objects seeking to slam into our home?

The biggest existing program is the Near-Earth Object Program of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.  I think you’ll be surprised at just how small this program is, though.  Scientists have long been complaining about the underfunding of this particular area of research.  Neil deGrasse Tyson addressed this very issue on an episode of The Daily Show not long after the Russian meteor.

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In the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Congress set a goal for NASA “to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter in order to assess the threat of such near-Earth objects to the Earth.”  Congress wanted this to be 90% done in 15 years.  Two years later, NASA told Congress that the $4 million per year that Congress allocated to the program was not enough and never would be.  In fact, they needed more like $50 million per year, preferably closer to $250 million.

One of the reasons that these objects are so hard to find is that they don’t emit any visible light.  Fortunately, they do emit infrared radiation (essentially, heat).  In April, JPL announced that it’s latest infrared detector for near earth objects had passed a major milestone.  The sensor is hoped to be used in a satellite called NEOcam to be put in orbit in 2015.

In the meantime, there hasn’t been much change in the funding for any near earth object programs.  It’s hard to imagine that Congress will increase funding for these types of programs when it is engaged in (almost) across-the-board spending cuts and science funding is at its lowest levels almost since Congress began funding scientific research.  But still, as Dr. Tyson put it, we have the ability to do something about this threat from the sky.  It would be awful if we didn’t.

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