26 March 2013

Congress on Meteors & Asteroids


See archived webcast and the opening statement by Dr. Lamar Smith

Statement of Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas)
Hearing on Space Threats: A Review of U.S. Government Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors, Part I
Chairman Smith: Good morning. Today’s hearing is on a subject important to our nation and to our world. This is the first hearing of two on Space Threats to Earth, reviewing U.S. Government efforts to track incoming asteroids and meteors.
Although many may be only aware of this subject due to recent events, it is actually one as old as our planet. This is a copy of TIME Magazine from nearly 20 years ago (1994) where this topic was featured on the cover. Though the issue has been around for a number of years, there are many questions still to be asked and answered. The range of questions are broad and complex, from how to track an object millions of miles away to how to respond if an asteroid or meteor is headed toward Earth.
The two events of Friday, February 15 - the harmless flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 and the not so harmless impact of a meteor in Russia - are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science. The asteroid passed just 17,000 miles from Earth, a distance less than the Earth’s circumference. Fifty years ago, we would have had no way of seeing the asteroid coming, and even so it was discovered by amateur astronomers. The U.S. has come a long way in its ability to track and characterize asteroids, meteors, comets and meteorites. But we still have a long way to go. NASA believes it has discovered 93 percent of the largest asteroids in near-Earth orbit, those one kilometer or larger.
But what about the other seven percent remaining, about 70, or even those smaller than one kilometer, estimated to be in the thousands? An asteroid as small as 100 meters could destroy an entire city upon a direct hit. Are we tracking those?The meteor that struck Russia was estimated to be 17 meters, and wasn’t tracked at all. The smaller they are, the harder they are to spot, and yet they can be life-threatening. The broad scope of our efforts include participation of governments, research institutions, industries and amateur astronomers in their backyard or on home computers.
Some space challenges require innovation, commitment and diligence. This is one of them. And this Committee will strive to continue to lead in this area. For all of the attention and publicity the two events of February 15 received, it was still too late for us to have acted to change the course of the incoming objects. We are in the same position today and for the foreseeable future unless we take actions now that improve our means of detection. Part of our discussion today is about how to achieve this in the current budget environment.
I do not believe that NASA is going to somehow defy budget gravity and get an increase when everyone else is getting cuts. But we need to find ways to prioritize NASA’s projects and squeeze as much productivity as we can out of the funds we have.
Examining and exploring ways to protect the Earth from asteroids and meteors is a priority for the American people and should be a priority for NASA. We were fortunate that the events of last month were simply an interesting coincidence rather than a catastrophe.
However, we still need to make investments and improvements in our capability to anticipate what may
occur decades from now, or tomorrow.


Smith: Avoiding Asteroid Threats Requires Innovation, Commitment and Diligence

Mar 19, 2013

Washington, D.C. – The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee today held a hearing titled, Threats from Space: A Review of U.S. Government Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors. The hearing is the first in a two-part series on what the U.S. is doing to track and monitor Near Earth Objects (NEO) that pose a threat to the planet. It comes one month after an asteroid passed the earth and a meteor exploded over the skies in Russia on the same day.

Chairman Smith: “The meteor that struck Russia was estimated to be 17 meters, and wasn’t tracked at all. The smaller they are, the harder they are to spot, and yet they can be life-threatening. Some space challenges require innovation, commitment and diligence. This is one of them.

“Examining and exploring ways to protect the Earth from asteroids and meteors is a priority for the American people and should be a priority for government. We were fortunate that the events of last month were simply an interesting coincidence rather than a catastrophe. And this Committee will strive to continue to lead in this area.”

On February 15, 2013, an unforeseen meteor exploded above Russia, releasing the equivalent of about 20 times the explosive energy of an atomic bomb. The blast injured nearly 1,200 people and resulted in an estimated $33 million in property damage. Until it entered our atmosphere, the Russian meteor went completely undetected. On the same day, a larger asteroid discovered by amateur astronomers and tracked closely by NASA passed safely by the Earth, but within the orbital belt of weather satellites.

Today’s hearing provided an overview of the U.S. government’s plans and programs to track, classify and mitigate the threat of NEOs. Witnesses estimated that between 13,000 and 20,000 objects exist that are over 140 meters and considered “near Earth.” Of those objects, we only have knowledge of and track around 10 percent. In order to improve on these capabilities, witnesses discussed the need for better international collaboration and more space-borne telescopes to track NEOs.

A second hearing is planned for April to address international, commercial private sector and philanthropic initiatives to survey the sky for asteroids and comets.

The following witnesses testified today:
The Honorable John P. Holdren, Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President
Gen. William L. Shelton, Commander, U.S. Air Force Space Command
The Honorable Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

We’re on notice to plan for the next meteor

By Rush Holt and Donna F. Edwards,February 15, 2013
Rush Holt (D) is a physicist and former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He represents New Jersey’s 12th District in the U.S. House. Donna F. Edwards, who represents Maryland’s 4th District, is the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on space.
Ameteor broke apart over rural Russia on Friday morning, injuring at least 1,200 people. Hours later, an asteroid known as 2012 DA14 passed about 17,000 miles above Earth’s surface — a close shave in astronomical terms, passing nearer than many of our communications satellites. One was predicted; the other was not.
These events were unrelated, but they underscore how crucial it is that nations know, quickly, what is falling from the sky and what, if any, dangers are posed.
Every day about 40 tons of space debris hit the atmosphere, burn and settle to Earth, NASA has found. The vast majority of the detritus consists of meteoroids no larger than a grain of sand, but even tiny specks pack a wallop: A typical meteor hits Earth traveling at least seven miles per second, at least 30 times faster than a bullet shot from a handgun. That is why a tiny meteoroid can make such a spectacular shooting star.
According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, the meteor that disintegrated over Siberia on Friday weighed in the neighborhood of 10 tons. It was thought to be traveling at 10 to 12 miles per second when it broke apart.
Every year or so, such a meteor blazes through the sky somewhere over Earth. But every 100 years or so, Earth is hit by a meteor large enough to cause much more significant devastation. Such an impact occurred in 1908 in Tunguska, Russia, when a meteor 100 feet or so in diameter exploded in the Siberian wilderness, releasing about 1,000 times the amount of energy as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
And every 100 million years or so, Earth is hit by a meteor large enough to cause mass extinctions, like the one at the end of the age of dinosaurs. These threats are minuscule on a day-to-day basis, but surely any existential threat to the human race must be taken seriously.
To help get a handle on this danger, NASA coordinates the Near-Earth Object Program, which searches for and tracks asteroids and comets that could approach the earth. As of this week, about 10,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered, including nearly 900 with a diameter of roughly a kilometer or larger. None is expected to hit Earth anytime soon, but many large objects are believed to remain undetected.
In 2005 Congress set a 15-year deadline for scientists to find 90 percent of the near-Earth objects greater than about 500 feet in diameter — those large enough to cause regional or global devastation. But the mandate has been chronically underfunded. The project would require several more dedicated telescopes. Last year the project received about $20 million, far less than the $50 million that the National Research Council estimated in 2010 was needed to reach the congressional goal by 2030, a decade late. Even when this goal is met, most small asteroids and comets — too small to cause global devastation but still large enough to cause damage far worse than just occurred in Russia — will remain undetected unless funding is significantly increased.


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