Just a brief hit on a story which cropped up earlier this month but didn’t draw a lot of attention. In the first week of January, NASA announced a couple of new programs which were being funded, both to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars. Each of them will be heading to the asteroid belt to poke around and learn things about the early formation of the solar system. Laudable projects to be sure, but the other part of the story was the projects they took a pass on. One of those was NEOCam, a venture which has been begging for funding for years and is designed not to study the asteroids peacefully hanging out near Mars, but the ones that might make an unwelcome appearance here on Earth. (Business insider)
[I]n a pile of rejected finalists, sitting alongside two conceptual missions to Venus, is a space telescope that might one day save countless lives on Earth from a killer asteroid: a threat Zurbuchen himself has said is “not a matter of if — but when.”
It’s called the Near-Earth Objects Camera, or NEOCam, and it promises to discover tens of thousands of rogue space rocks roughly 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter or bigger. That size is by design: Congress passed a law in 2005 charging NASA — as one of its seven explicitly stated goals — to find 90% of such near-Earth objects (NEOs) by 2020.
NASA’s own explainer on such space bodies claims that we get hit with one the size of a football stadium roughly every 2,000 years and it’s a few million years between strikes by objects “large enough to threaten Earth’s civilization.”
So what’s with this repeated pattern of turning down funding for the project? Only a few months ago John Holdren, the White House chief science advisor, released a statement saying that we are still vulnerable to a potentially catastrophic asteroid strike. He went on to point out that things like the Tunguska event take place every thousand years or so on average. That’s not a terribly comforting window when you consider that whatever exploded in the atmosphere over Russia in 1908 flattened more than 2,000 square kilometers of forest. If that happened today over a metropolitan area the death toll would be in the millions.
NASA and FEMA have been jointly conducting asteroid impact training drills over the winter. It’s probably a good thing, too. If you want a reason not to sleep as well tonight, consider the fact that only eight days ago an asteroid the size of a ten story building shot past the Earth at a distance two thirds closer than the moon and we never even saw it coming. If that had plowed into the ocean near any of the major cities the ensuing tsunami would have been a horror show. In November another one, only slightly smaller, zoomed past us not much higher than the altitude of our geosynchronous satellites and we only saw it a few hours before it arrived.
So I ask again… what’s with the lack of interest in funding NEOCam? I mean, it’s not as if it would be a completely frivolous waste of half a billion dollars. You managed to find five million to throw “Help a Hipster Quit Smoking” parties, after all. It seems like we could scrape together a few bucks to avoid the need for sending Bruce Willis up on one of those Dragon rockets with a few nukes.