White House Adviser: US Must Prepare for Asteroid
If an asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, would we be ready to defend against its destructive impact or would we be helpless and defenseless?
NASA, America's space agency, is being charged with leading the way to protect not only the U.S. but the entire world in the event of such a horrifying scenario. And a top White House science adviser says we have to be prepared.
In separate 10-page letters to the House Committee on Science and Technology and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, outlines plans for "(A) protecting the United States from a near-Earth object that is expected to collide with Earth; and (B) implementing a deflection campaign, in consultation with international bodies, should one be necessary."
The White House has asked Congress to consider how to best deal with the potential threat to Earth of an impact with an asteroid from space.
While Holdren indicates that no large asteroid or comet presents an immediate hazard to our planet, the fact that devastating impacts have occurred on Earth in the distant past is enough to warrant safety precautions for the future.
"Indeed, a steady stream of these objects enters the Earth's atmosphere on a daily basis, consisting mostly of dust-sized particles and estimated to total some 50 to 150 tons each day," Holdren wrote.
As remote as it may seem that Earth could be the target of a giant rock from space, nevertheless, Holdren insists that "the possibility of a future collision involving a more hazardous object should not be ignored."
Asteroids are rocky bodies found within the inner solar system, originating in an area known as the asteroid belt, located between the planets Mars and Jupiter.
If a large asteroid were to strike Earth, it could cause a global climate change, which many scientists believe is what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago -- not a good prospect for life on Earth in the present day if a similar event occurred.
NASA's Near Earth Object program, or NEO, looks for and monitors asteroids that are at least a kilometer in diameter.
But, as Holdren points out, one problem in the search is that "the orbits of known objects can be changed by gravitational or solar radiation perturbations, or even collisions with other objects, meaning that periodic monitoring of known NEOs must also be conducted."
Numerous movies have depicted the devastation caused by an asteroid collision with Earth, including "Meteor" (1979), "Deep Impact" (1998) and "Armageddon" (1998).
After 12 years of cosmic hunting, NASA search teams have determined that 149 NEOs larger than a kilometer in size are in orbits that might pose a problem for Earth, but none is considered an impact threat in the next 100 years.
The White House OSTP office is working to establish plans and procedures in the event of a possible NEO threat to America.
One of those plans involves using the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the Department of Homeland Security, to handle responsibilities on the ground regarding an NEO threat.
After an asteroid-to-Earth trajectory is determined to impact an area of the U.S., FEMA would notify the population through the National Warning System and it would begin emergency response activities.
Holdren's letter also indicates the importance of notifying other countries of an impending asteroid strike "in an effort to minimize the potential loss of life and property."
And there's the hope that, if an asteroid becomes an actual threat to our planet, a plan would be implemented to try to somehow either destroy the rock or deflect it off course.
Holdren suggests to Congress that NASA and the Department of Defense should work together to devise any strategy that would involve the military.
So the good news is that high-level discussions are on the plate as to how Earth can defend itself against the onslaught of a potential disaster from space.
The bad news: There's no plan set up yet. For the time being, we're staying out of harm's way.