NASA Report on Asteroids Suggests Nuclear Option

Scientists have sent Congress a report on ways to prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth. Among the proposals: Use nuclear weapons to nudge a big space rock off a collision course. Some scientists don't think much of that idea.

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Oh, this has been the subject of movies and novels and maybe a few of your daydreams.

How would you stop an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth? Now, a NASA report says nuclear weapons might offer the best chance to stop it. It's just one conclusion of the report, which Congress requested. Another is that it could cost a billion dollars to find and track all the asteroids that might cause catastrophic damage.

NPR's Nell Boyce has more.

NELL BOYCE: A few years back, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher held some hearings on killer asteroids. He heard from one scientist who tried to put things in perspective, saying your risk of being hurt by an asteroid is about the same as your odds of getting a royal straight flush in Las Vegas.

Representative DANA ROHRABACHER (Republican, California): And interestingly enough, I did go to Las Vegas once and got a royal straight flush. So, the argument actually reinforced to me what the real danger is out there.

BOYCE: To try to reduce that danger, Rohrabacher and other members of Congress recently asked NASA to lay out what it could do to better track threatening space rocks. Lawmakers recently got the report, which notes that NASA already keeps an eye out for big truly planet-threatening objects. It's a program called Space Guard, and it costs about $4 million a year. Dave Steitz is a NASA spokesperson.

Mr. DAVE STEITZ (Spokesperson, NASA): Currently, NASA has a program that is looking to track up to 90 percent of the near-Earth asteroids that are bigger than a kilometer, pretty big objects that are coming close to Earth.

BOYCE: NASA has found about 700 of these really big ones. And scientists have stumbled across a bunch of smaller ones, too. Say, the size of a football stadium. There are probably a lot more of those. If one smacked into earth, it could take out a city or cause a tsunami. So, two years ago, Congress said NASA should look into tracking these smaller rocks as well. NASA's Dave Steitz says the agency has now outlined several ways to do so. For example, by using two ground-based telescopes and building another telescope in space.

Mr. STEITZ: We could probably complete a sky survey by the year 2020. To do that would probably require about a billion dollars, and that's money we don't currently have.

BOYCE: The new report is drawing mixed reactions. Former astronaut Rusty Schweickart is chairman of the B612 Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting the Earth from asteroid strikes. He thinks NASA has laid out some good options. He just wishes the agency had said which one it likes best.

Mr. RUSTY SCHWEICKART (Chairman, B612 Foundation): NASA basically declined to do it. I mean, they quite literally said, you know, we're afraid that you're just going to tell us to do it without giving us any money. And so, we're not going to tell you which program we recommend.

BOYCE: Schweickart is also dismayed that the report says the best way to stop killer asteroids would be nuclear weapons.

Mr. SCHWEICKART: Space is weapons-free. It's a very, very touchy subject internationally, and it should be. And there are even international treaties that ban it.

BOYCE: He says most asteroids could be deflected with something like a gentle push from a rocket. At least one key lawmaker, the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has said he's skeptical of the report. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is also in the committee. He hopes NASA will get some more money to deal with asteroids. He says if we're going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars fighting terrorism.

Rep. ROHRABACHER: We should be able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in order to protect us from an asteroid or a comet that would do far more damage than the terrorists could ever imagine.

BOYCE: For the moment, however, it appears that asteroid hunters are going to have to make do with the money they have.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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