Large asteroid heading to Earth? Pray, says NASA
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By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – NASA chief Charles
Bolden has advice on how to handle a large asteroid headed toward New
York City: Pray.
That’s about all the United States – or anyone for that
matter – could do at this point about unknown asteroids and meteors
that may be on a collision course with Earth, Bolden told lawmakers at a
U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee hearing on Tuesday.
An asteroid estimated to be have been about 55 feet in
diameter exploded on February 15 over Chelyabinsk, Russia, generating
shock waves that shattered windows and damaged buildings. More than
1,500 people were injured.
Later that day, a larger, unrelated asteroid discovered
last year passed about 17,200 miles from Earth, closer than the network
of television and weather satellites that ring the planet.
The events “serve as evidence that we live in an active
solar system with potentially hazardous objects passing through our
neighborhood with surprising frequency,” said Representative Eddie
Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat.
“We were fortunate that the events of last month were
simply an interesting coincidence rather than a catastrophe,” said
Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, who called the
hearing to learn what is being done and how much money is needed to
better protect the planet.
NASA has found and is tracking about 95 percent of the
largest objects flying near Earth, those that are .62 miles or larger in
“An asteroid of that size, a kilometer or bigger, could
plausibly end civilization,” White House science advisor John Holdren
told legislators at the same hearing.
But only about 10 percent of an estimated 10,000
potential “city-killer” asteroids, those with a diameter of about 165
feet have been found, Holdren added.
On average, objects of that size are estimated to hit Earth about once every 1,000 years.
“From the information we have, we don’t know of an
asteroid that will threaten the population of the United States,” Bolden
said. “But if it’s coming in three weeks, pray.”
In addition to stepping up its monitoring efforts and
building international partnerships, NASA is looking at developing
technologies to divert an object that may be on a collision course with
“The odds of a near-Earth object strike causing massive
casualties and destruction of infrastructure are very small, but the
potential consequences of such an event are so large it makes sense to
takes the risk seriously,” Holdren said.
About 66 million years ago, an object 6 miles in
diameter is believed to have smashed into what is now the Yucatan
Peninsula in Mexico, leading to the demise of the dinosaurs, as well as
most plant and animal life on Earth.
The asteroid that exploded over Russia last month was
the largest object to hit Earth’s atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska
event when an asteroid or comet exploded over Siberia, leveling 80
million trees over more than 830 square miles (2,150 sq km).
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Paul Simao)