Congressional Hearing Promised on Asteroid Threat

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said the meteor explosion above Chelyabinsk, Russia, and the Asteroid 2012 DA 14 flyby justify investment in systems for detecting and diverting asteroids that could threaten Earth.

Reactions to the meteor explosion Feb. 15 in the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia, include a proposal by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, to create a worldwide defense system of some sort. The Feb. 15 event was a surprise, unlike the Asteroid 2012 DA 14 flyby the same day, but having them occur so close together caused scientists and others to discuss how a threatening asteroid could be identified and whether its course could be changed.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said the meteor explosion and the asteroid's coming within 17,200 miles of Earth justify the investment in systems for detecting and diverting threatening asteroids.

"Today's events are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science.Asteroid 2012 DA14 passed just 17,000 miles from Earth, less than the distance of a round trip from New York to Sydney. And this morning, a much smaller meteorite hit near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, damaging buildings and injuring hundreds," Smith said in a statement. "Developing technology and research that enable us to track objects like Asteroid 2012 DA14 is critical to our future. We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth. Fifty years ago, we would have had no way of seeing an asteroid like this coming. Now, thanks to the discoveries NASA has made in its short history, we have known about 2012 DA14 for about a year. As the world leader in space exploration, America has made great progress for mankind. But our work is not done. We should continue to study, research, and explore space to better understand our universe and better protect our planet."

The statement said the committee will hold a hearing soon to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth.

Smith's statement is good news for Dr. John Tonry, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii, who leads a team that is developing the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) with help from a $5 million NASA grant. When it is operational in 2015, the asteroid detection system will use as many as eight telescopes to monitor for faint objects moving through space. Tonry's team predicts the system will offer a one-week warning for a 50-yard diameter asteroid or "city killer" and three weeks for a 150 yards in diameter object.

"That's enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts," he said Feb. 15, adding that if the Chelyabinsk meteor had been the same size as the 2012 DA14 asteroid, the city would have been destroyed. ATLAS will complement the U-Hawaii Institute for Astronomy’s Pan-STARRS project, a system that searches for large "killer asteroids" years before they would hit Earth. Pan-STARRS takes a month to complete one sweep of the sky in a deep but narrow survey, but ATLAS will search the sky in a closer and wider path to identify smaller asteroids that hit Earth much more frequently.

The "city killer" asteroids' impact would resemble the Tunguska event of June 1908. Lloyd's, the British insurance market, noted Feb. 15 that insurers sometimes consider catastrophe exposures like this. Four years ago, risk modeling specialists at RMS modeled a Tunguska-type event occurring over New York City. With a population exposure of nearly 10 million, the RMS model forecasts 3.2 million fatalities, 3.76 million injuries, property losses around $1.19 trillion, Lloyd's reported.

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