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article imageDeep Impact: We can’t actually afford to get hit by an asteroid, just now

By Paul Wallis     Nov 10, 2007 in Science
Say the world was under threat from an asteroid, and the guy from NASA says “Well, we don’t really have the budget…” At the moment, they’re talking about a budget for detecting asteroids, not a budget for doing anything about them.
A congressional hearing on NASA’s has had a rather bizarre twist, which will curl the toenails of people who’ve been following the space program for the last 40 years or so.
According to Space Daily:
“Lawmakers decried the threatened closure of a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico run with NASA's assistance that is the world's foremost facility for tracking space objects.
"We're talking about minimal expense compared to the cost of having to absorb this type of damage," Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said. "After all, it may be the entire planet that is destroyed!"”
Nice of Congress to care, but they’re the ones voting for NASA’s budget. The telescope is threatened with closure by 2011 if it doesn’t get private sector funding. NASA says it can “get by” with other telescopes cobbled together, and from the sound of it maybe a bit of busking and some tasteful performance art.
The budget for Near Earth Objects, including the enchantingly named “Extinction Class” asteroids, is on hiatus because NASA says the statistical likelihood of an impact is so low they can’t justify expenditure.
Which sort of misses the point that an asteroid isn’t likely to be stared down, by however photogenic an astronomer.
It so happens that your tireless, ethic-less, and in fact rather nauseating correspondent has had the Near Earth Object Program bookmarked for years, and you can see what it actually does.
It includes a piece on Apophis, the asteroid referred to in the hearings. Actually, the one that bothers me is a thing called Toutatis, which seems to spend almost as much time in our orbit as we do.
There are not, at this point, steely eyed folks waiting to leap into their spaceships and blow up asteroids. Nor do nukes have the range speed and accuracy required.
Which is just as well. Because since “Deep Impact” someone has discovered that some of the “rocks” aren’t rocks, but piles of gravel of various sizes, and if we hit one with a nuke we could spray ourselves with asteroids, some of which could move into new orbits and come back at us years later, if they don’t hit us when they explode.
Get the impression that the problem isn’t getting a lot of scrutiny?
The dinosaurs didn’t have budgets, and they lasted for 120 million years.
There’s a pattern there, somewhere.
More about NASA, Asteroids, Budget
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