A trio of experts testified before the House Science Committee of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday and warned that the detection and early warning of approaching Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and other threats from space is imperiled by current political wrangling over the national budget.
The House Science Committee, chaired by Texas congressman Rep. Lamar Smith (R), welcomed John Holdren, President Barack Obama's Director of the Office of Science and Technology, Gen. William Shelton, the commander of U.S. Air Force's Space Command and NASA Administrator Gen. Charles F. Bolden on Tuesday morning for a hearing entitled "Threats from Space: A Review of U.S. Government Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors."
Holdren, Shelton and Bolden emphasized that while odds of a devastating strike from an object from space are small, the consequences could be enormous. While dozens of objects a meter or more in size strike the Earth's atmosphere every year, most burn up harmlessly in the upper limits of the stratosphere.
The meteorite that exploded over Russia on Feb. 15 of this year is estimated to have measured about 15 meters. Explosions like the one that resulted when that object hit the atmosphere are believed to occur about once every 100 years.
Holdren talked about the Tunguska strike in June of 1908, however, in which a meteoroid or comet exploded and released about 15 megatons of energy, flattening trees for an 850-square-mile radius in Siberia. These events are believed to occur once every 1,000 years or so.
Should a Tunguska-like object come again, it could prove to be a "city-killer" on impact. The odds of that are low, however, given that land only covers about 30 percent of the earth's surface, and only about three percent of that land is urbanized.
NASA's Bolden argued that Obama administration has increased the budget for searching for NEOs and that if current plans are implemented, NASA hopes to send a team of astronauts to an asteroid for exploration by 2025. While the events of Feb. 15 have drawn the world's attention to the urgency of spotting and predicting the arrival of objects from space, NASA, he said, has been studying the issue for decades.
"In fact, NASA's focus in this area," he said, "is evident in our five-fold increase in Near Earth Object observation since 2010. And literally dozens of people are involved in some aspect of our NEO research at NASA and its field centers."
All three experts agreed, however, that the budget cuts and furloughs involved with sequestration, the rounds of deep cutbacks to federal programs that were triggered by Congress and the White House's inability to reach a budget deal by March 1, are wreaking havoc on current surveillance methods.
Shelton said that his "every waking moment" is taken up with how to keep the country safe as sequestration effectively reduces his operating budget.
Bolden emphasized that President Obama's proposed budget allows research to continue into NEOs and how to track them and, if necessary, divert them. He said that the plan to send a team of astronauts to explore an asteroid will go a long way toward surmounting many of the current obstacles to diverting a dangerous threat.
Holdren and Bolden both emphasized that what is really needed are telescopes in space to watch for approaching objects without the interference of the Earth's atmosphere and the light of the sun. The reason nobody anticipated the arrival of the object that exploded over Russia on Feb. 15 was, said Bolden, because it came "from out of the sun."
"Ground-based systems are great," said Bolden, "but you really need something in space to see what's out there."
Monitoring the situation in space isn't something we can only look into on an emergency basis, he insisted. "This is really important," he said, "and it has to be continuous," not constantly interrupted by the vagaries of political budget battles. "The president has a plan and that plan is incremental. Now, we can not like him and not agree with him. We can not do a lot of things, but it is the best plan that we have."
"If we want to save the planet," he said. "then we're going to have to get together, that side and that side, and execute that plan as expeditiously as possible."
"We are trying very diligently, as I said before, with the president's budget," he said, "to be in a position where we are able to respond." Congress charged NASA with figuring out the problem, then declined to fund the research, he said.
"I don't care whose fault it is," he said of the current Congressional stalemate with the administration. "I don't care if it's anybody's fault. We all know what we're facing today and we're all sitting here today as the Congress and the administration try to figure out sequestration, something that never should have happened."