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How will NASA defend Earth against killer asteroids and comets?

Report outlines NASA’s option in discovering, defending against hazards from space

By , Network World
January 22, 2010 06:01 PM ET

Network World - Combinations of space- and ground-based telescopes may be the most economically palpable defenses NASA can mount against asteroids and comets heading toward Earth, but there are more advanced defenses involving spacecraft and nuclear explosions that might be plausible in the future.

Those were just some of the conclusions included in a report, “Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies,” issued today from scientists at the National Research Council on what options NASA has to detect more near-Earth objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets that could pose a hazard to Earth.

NASA telescopes watch cosmic violence, mysteries unravel

The same council issued a preliminary report in August saying imminent impacts (such as those with very short warning times of hours or weeks) require better current discovery capabilities. Existing surveys are not designed for this purpose; they are designed to discover more-distant NEOs and to provide years of advance notice for possible impacts. In the past, objects with short warning times have been discovered serendipitously as part of surveys having different objectives. Search strategies for discovering imminent impacts need to be considered, and current surveys may need to be changed.

No matter what though, the report says the $4 million the US currently spends annually to search for comets and asteroids is insufficient to meet a congressionally mandated requirement on NASA to detect NEOs that could threaten Earth.

The report states that while impacts by large comets or asteroids are rare, “a single impact could inflict extreme damage, raising the classic problem of how to confront a possibility that is both very rare and very important. Far more likely are those impacts that cause only moderate damage and few fatalities.”

An asteroid or comet about 10 kilometers in diameter struck the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago and caused global devastation, probably wiping out large numbers of plant and animal species including the dinosaurs, the report states.

Objects as large as that strike Earth only about once every 100 million years on average, the report notes. NASA has been highly successful at detecting and tracking objects 1 kilometer in diameter or larger, and continues to search for these large objects. The report notes that NASA has managed to accomplish some of the killer asteroids mandate with existing telescopes but with over 6,000 known objects and countless others the task is relentless.

Objects down to sizes of about 140 meters in diameter -- which NASA has been mandated to survey for -- would cause regional damage; such impacts happen on average every 30,000 years, the report says.

The report recommends that NASA monitor for smaller objects -- those down to 30 to 50 meters in diameter -- which the report says recent research suggests can be highly destructive.

The report states that detailed studies of ways to mitigate collisions are best viewed as a form of insurance. How much to spend on these insurance premiums is a decision that must be made by the nation’s policymakers.

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