Will Meteor Lead To Push for More NASA Funding?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Feb. 16 2013 3:15 PM

Will Asteroid and Russian Meteor Lead To Push for More NASA Funding?

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People across the globe watched video of the meteor that streaked across Russia's skyline Friday

Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Cleanup has begun a day after a meteor blast that took the world by surprise Friday shook Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. What the Associated Press describes as a “small army of workers” has mobilized to replace an estimated 50 acres of windows that were shattered by the sonic waves from the explosion that is estimated to have been as powerful as 20 Hiroshima bombs. Some 1,200 people were injured, mostly by the shattered glass, although only 40 remained hospitalized Saturday, two of whom were reported to be in serious condition.  

The meteor was only one of two reasons everyone seemed to be looking up on Friday. In what was nothing short of a cosmic coincidence, the meteor streaked across the Russian sky on the same day as an asteroid came close to Earth. And the news of an asteroid and a meteor on the same day is leading some to wonder whether we shouldn’t be devoting more resources to make sure the world has more information about any threats from space.

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Why did astronomers know about the asteroid and not the meteor? Pure luck, explains Wired. They discovered the asteroid 2012 DA14 simply because they happened to be looking in the right place at the right time. Even though NASA tracks near-Earth objects (NEOs) it doesn’t have the resources to track more than around 5 percent of the sky. A paltry 0.05 percent of NASA’s budget is allocated to the NEO program. And when you consider that 0.4 percent of the U.S. budget goes to NASA that means “one fiftieth of one percent of the entire US budget is allocated to finding these potential ‘doomsday’ threats to our planet,” notes Wired.

Friday’s events should serve as a wake-up call, write Reps. Rush Holt and Donna Edwards in the Washington Post. In 1995, Congress set a 15-year deadline for scientists to find 90 percent of near-Earth objects but since then has proceeded to severely underfund the mandate. “We should make the investments necessary to track near-Earth objects and prepare for disasters of all kinds,” Holt and Edwards write. Seems as though at the very least there will be some grandstanding. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will be holding a hearing on how to “better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth,” Chairman Lamar Smith said, according to the Hill.

Even though there’s little appetite in Congress for more spending, “Friday’s double whammy may have changed some minds,” points out McClatchy. Even if more asteroids are detected though there is so far little that can be done to knock them off course. That doesn’t mean proposals aren’t in the works. Two California scientists are floating a proposal to “deploy an array of lasers that could vaporize asteroids,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

For those in the Chelyabinsk region in Russia though, the top issue now is to quickly repair windows—an urgent matter in an area where the temperature at noon was 10°F (-12°C). 

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.