US stepping up protection from asteroids, comets

Christopher Davidson
June 23, 2018

In a big announcement that includes plenty of assurances that we're not now in danger of an asteroid impact, NASA has a new plan for dealing with asteroid impacts.

NASA's planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, said scientists have found 95 percent of all these near-Earth objects measuring one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) or bigger.

It's worth stating that this is far from NASA's first attempt at dealing with potential asteroid strikes, and has plenty of programs and offices like their Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

In a 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) teleconference today, NASA scientists will roll out a new report on the space agency's strategy for tracking, and potentially deflecting, near-Earth asteroids that might one day pose a threat to our planet. By completing this action plan, the agency along with its governmental partners will start to evaluate and actually begin development of various approaches, HAMMER, or otherwise, including the necessary technologies to defend Earth from a significant asteroid or comet collision, seeing as how there could be a Planet Nine out there firing comets this way.

The 20-page document is titled "The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan", and organizes and coordinates efforts related to the NEO efforts within the federal government during the next 10 years to ensure the nation can more effectively respond in case this type of very low-probability but very high-consequence natural disaster should occur.

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That's what happened in 2013 when an asteroid about 20m in size suddenly exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, damaging thousands of buildings. An asteroid exploded over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, levelling 2000 sq km of forest. According to the report released Wednesday, casualties could be in the millions if a similar event struck New York City.

A giant space rock wiped out the dinosaurs when it smacked into Mexico's Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago. Over the next 10 years, NASA and other US agencies like FEMA and NOAA are hoping to get a more solid strategy together. "This kind of cooperation is really important", said Aaron Miles, a senior policy adviser with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

All that involves current technology, Mr Johnson said. Also, no additional funding was set aside for the plan; officials said the measures can be implemented using existing resources.

The bottom line, officials said, is the USA government wants to be prepared to decide which action is best if needed.

Scientists hope to learn more about asteroids from a pair of missions now under way. Missions like this lasting months or years make it hard if not impossible for humans, given current technology.

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