Energy

Obama Rejects NASA’s Plan To Protect Earth From Asteroids

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The Obama administration rejected NASA’s proposal to detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

The rejection of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Camera’s (NEOCam) means the space agency won’t be able to complete its mission of detecting 90 percent of asteroids that are at least 459 feet in diameter by 2020. If the Obama administration’s decision stands, the search for incoming asteroids won’t even get started until at least 2023.

“We urge the new administration to direct NASA or another involved agency to fund an asteroid-hunting infrared space telescope through an open solicitation rather than a science mission competition (e.g. Discovery), since the primary purpose would be for planetary defense and space development,” the B612 Foundation, a private nonprofit group which advocates for defenses against dangerous asteroids, said in a press statement.

NASA would need at least five years of warning if an asteroid or comet is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s relatively little that can be done to shorten the response time.

“The biggest problem, basically, is there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment,” Dr. Joseph Nuth, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Alphr. “If you look at the schedule for high-reliability spacecraft and launching them, it takes five years to launch a spacecraft.” Nuth noted that NASA only had 22 months of warning before a comet very nearly slammed into Mars in 2014.

Obama appointed NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters in 2013 that the only response to a “surprise” asteroid on a collision course with Earth is to “pray.” NASA’s record on stopping asteroids in simulations isn’t encouraging.

In a recent “wargame,” NASA and other federal agencies was unable to launch a deflection mission before a simulated asteroid hit Earth in 2020, causing the “city-killer” to eventually slam into the ocean just off Southern California. Federal Energy Management Agency (FEMA) personnel were forced to coordinate a mass evacuation of the metropolitan Los Angeles area due to a potential tsunami and impact damage.

The simulated asteroid was relatively small at only around 800 feet in diameter. It had a possibility of making impact anywhere along a long swath of Earth, including the U.S. Such an asteroid could strike with a force about 55 times stronger than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in World War II.

“It’s not a matter of if—but when—we will deal with such a situation,” Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, an administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a press statement. “But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning and mitigation.”

Global asteroid detection programs found more than 15,307 near-Earth objects of all sizes; 1,693 new near-Earth objects were identified this year alone, according to International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planets Center. These newly discovered near-Earth objects are part of a much larger population of more than 700,000 known asteroids in our solar system.

NASA and its European partners are now focused on finding objects that are 450 feet in diameter or larger. Those could devastate a city or country if they struck Earth.

In the event an asteroid can’t be prevented from hitting Earth, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office would work with FEMA, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies to coordinate disaster response.

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