NPR : News

Scientists: 'No Options' To Stop Massive Asteroids On Collision Course

Without "a few years" warning, humans currently have no capacity to stop an asteroid on a collision course with the planet, scientists told a Senate panel Wednesday.

"Right now we have no options," said former astronaut Ed Lu. "If you dont know where they are, there's nothing you can do."

Scientists are calling for continued funding and support for NASA satellites and observation programs that look for "near Earth objects." The scenario from Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon is on the minds of lawmakers after two hulking rocks exploded in the air over Russia in February. More than 1,000 people were injured, bringing the risks of future incidents — and measures to prevent them — into clearer focus.

"I was disappointed that Bruce Willis was not available to be a fifth witness on the panel," joked Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during the hearing.

While scientists put the odds of asteroids one kilometer in diameter or larger colliding with the earth as "once every few thousand year" event, they said cuts in space funding to monitor and detect space rocks could have devastating consequences.

"What [the film Armageddon] did was basically convince the American people that if anything bad happened, people would get in a shuttle and fix it," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. "That is myth. That is not reality."

Scientists were simply sharing a grim reality NPR and others have written about in recent weeks — that the rules of physics mean there's almost no way to stop asteroids and debris from hurtling toward earth. It didn't stop the doomsday-scenario questioning from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida:

"What would an asteroid that is a kilometer in diameter, what would it do if it hit the earth?," Nelson asked.

"That is likely to end human civilization," said Lu, who is now CEO of the B612 Foundation, which aims to hunt devastating asteroids.

Decades of lead time is the only way to prevent that level of destruction, said scientists. With decades of advance notice, Lu said, American astronauts currently do have the capacity to destroy or make small changes to the trajectory of flying space objects to keep them from hitting earth. But detection requires investment, they said.

"It's important to know what we're up against, and this decade in particular is great for us to do the research necessary that will contribute to potential mitigation concepts," said James Green, NASA's planetary science director.

Lu estimates there's a 30 percent chance this century of relatively smaller asteroids hitting a "random location" on the earth to create a five megaton impact. Casualties would depend on the population of the area of impact.

If detected early enough, the cost of a mission to prevent a hit would cost at least a billion dollars, Lu said. "But ... you'd have to compare that against the losses of a massive, megaton impact."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

How Photos Of Crisis Can Shape The Events They Represent

NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Kira Pollack, director of photography and visual enterprise at Time, about how iconic photos might affect the conversation about the events they have come to represent.
NPR

How Big Egg Tried To Bring Down Little 'Mayo' (And Failed)

Newly released emails from the American Egg Board reveal embarrassing details about its fight against the vegan product Just Mayo. Industry critics say the board's antics may have broken the law.
WAMU 88.5

Friday News Roundup - International

Hungary struggles to deal with thousands of migrants at a Budapest train station. World leaders react to news the Obama administration clears a hurdle on the Iran nuclear deal. And the king of Saudi Arabia makes his first official visit to Washington. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tamara Keith for analysis of the week's top international news stories.

NPR

How The Architect Of Netflix's Innovative Culture Lost Her Job To The System

Netflix is famous for pioneering a company culture that demands standout results from every employee. One of the architects of this philosophy ended up losing her job to the system she created.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.