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Scant Support for Turning Aside Doomsday Asteroid
Tue Sep 3, 5:13 PM ET

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A doomsday asteroid could wipe out humanity if it collided with Earth, but scientists said on Tuesday there was little support for investigating how to turn aside a big deadly space rock.

The United States spends between $3.5 million and $4 million a year to track asteroids and comets that might hit Earth at some point, but very little on strategies to get our planet out of the way, said astronomer Don Yeomans of NASA ( news - web sites)'s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"There's been very little money spent on mitigation studies," Yeomans said at a scientific workshop on what it would take to get out of the way of an incoming Near Earth Object, or NEO, as these potential cosmic hazards are known.

Part of the problem is the lack of an actual hazard: Yeomans and others at the workshop agreed that there is no present danger of an asteroid strike big enough to cause cataclysmic damage to Earth.

But if one were detected in the future, there is no plan in place to deal with the threat, Yeomans and others said.

"What if you do find one with our name on it, then whose responsibility is it?" Yeomans said. "You assume it would be the military's, but which one? ... NASA's charter is to find them and track them. That's it."

Since 1998, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been identifying NEOs as part of a decade-long search for the biggest ones, those with diameters of .6 miles or more.


An asteroid this size could eradicate humans as a species, or send them back to the dark ages, said Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute, and for this reason, these big NEOs should be the top priority for mitigation.

But smaller rocks, about 1,000 feet across, could destroy cities, spur monstrous tsunamis and flatten an area the size of New Jersey, according to Erik Asphaug of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

While the bigger asteroids would disrupt society most profoundly and have the longest-lasting effect, the probability of them ever striking Earth is extremely low, Asphaug said in an interview.

However, he said, "from the point of economic harm and lives lost today, it's probably the 300 meter asteroid that is the worst," because the likelihood of one of these higher Earth is 10 times higher than a .6 mile NEO.

Compared to a natural disaster such as a massive earthquake ( news - web sites) or volcanic eruption, where national agencies are prepared to mobilize and communicate with those in harm's way, Asphaug said there is little or no preparation for what to do in the event a NEO is headed for Earth.

But he reckoned a mitigation program to nudge the incoming threat off-course could be put in place in 10 years at a cost of perhaps $10 billion, which might be made available if a credible NEO threat were detected.

"Once you identify the thing, I'm sure that money will be no problem," Asphaug said.

As of last week, NASA's NEO tracking program had identified 2,027 asteroids and comets that might come to Earth's neighborhood.

Of the 36 ranked of highest risk, only one merited scientific attention, and even so, its chance of a collision with Earth was deemed as low as the chance that some random object would hit our planet in the next few decades.

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