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Astronomy From West Virginia

HOUSE HOLDS HEARING ON NEO THREAT - NOVEMBER 10, 2007

BRIDGEPORT, WV (S-M) - The House of Representatives on Thursday held a hearing on the threat of Near-Earth Objects - asteroids and comets which could collide with Earth.

 

The 2005 NASA authorization legislation instructed the agency to "develop and implement a near-Earth object survey program to track and catalouge Near-Earth Objects greater than 140 meters in diameter" within 15 years. Thursday's hearing sought to determine NASA's progress toward meeting this goal.

 

First to testify was Congressman Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico. Fortuno revealed that the Arecibo radio telescope is in danger of closing due to a lack of funding by the National Science Foundation. "The NSF has threatened to close the Observatory in 2011 and NASA has so far been unwilling to assume the funding of the radar required for tracking NEOs... The world's most sensitive radio/radar telescope at Arecibo Observatory must not be closed."
 

It was revealed by Republican Tom Feeney that the amount needed to operate the radar is only $2 million per year, which our editors note is a mere drop in the bucket for an agency like NASA. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves," said Associate Editor Rigsley Berra. "They waste more than that designing fancy toilet seats for the space station. When are these people going to wake up and realize the NEO survey program is more important to humanity than driving toy cars around on Mars?"

 

Also appearing at the hearing was noted expert Dr. Donald K. Yeomans, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Over very long time intervals, objects with diameters greater than one kilometer are statistically the most dangerous because their impacts would cause global consequences," said Yeomans. "While an impact by a 140 meter object would not generate global consequences, its impact energy would still be about 100 megatons, and the likelihood of one of these impacts is 100 times greater than an impact by the less-numerous kilometer sized objects.. The current surveys could complete the goal outlines in the 2005 NASA authorization, but it would take a century to do so."

 

Representative Mark Udall of Colorado said, "I am very concerned that NASA’s report to Congress failed to provide a recommended option and budget plan for the survey, as directed by the 2005 authorization... it is my responsibility to make certain that this plan is completed and I will continue to closely monitor NASA’s work until it is finished."

 

Editor Berra had more to say on the subject. "What people who think it can never happen don't realize is that an impact sufficient to wipe out a city or small state probably happens every century or two. These objects have been crashing throughout history but humanity was not widespread enough in the past for it to be likely that people would be hit. With the rapid expansion of human settlement in the past 200 years, it is now much more likely that the next big impact will kill people - maybe lots of them."

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