The Planetary Society today joined with US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, 46th District of California, to call for greater support for near-Earth object research and continued funding of the Arecibo radiotelescope to track potentially threatening objects in space. They were joined at the press conference by Alan W. Harris, Senior Research Scientist of the Space Science Institute, and Don Yeomans, Manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
June 30 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska cataclysm when a fireball from space exploded over a Siberian forest, flattening more than 2000 square kilometers. If such an impact occurred over Los Angeles or Moscow today, the death toll would be catastrophic. The dangers our planet faces from near-Earth objects (NEOs) are the focus of The Planetary Society's year-long program, Target Earth.
Astronomers have already discovered that one asteroid, named Apophis, will pass closer to Earth in 21 years than our geosynchronous communications satellites, and its trajectory has a small probability of taking it on a collision course with Earth seven years after that. The Planetary Society awarded $50,000 in an Apophis Mission Design contest for the best idea for tagging a potentially hazardous asteroid, marking it in some way that it could be better tracked.
If an object is known to be dangerous decades before it will impact Earth, humanity will have the chance to alter the object's course and the planet's destiny.
"We can't afford to remain ignorant of a dangerous object that might be headed our way in 20, 30, or even 100 years," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. “The lives of millions may be at stake.”
Earth orbits the solar system in a swarm of NEOs. Tracking these objects by radar is an ideal way to precisely know the probability of impact, and the Arecibo radiotelescope is the most powerful instrument for the job. However, Arecibo currently faces closure by the National Science Foundation due to lack of funds, and The Planetary Society joins its voice to many from the science community, urging Congress to reinstate the telescope's budget.
Over the past few years, our knowledge of NEOs has greatly increased as researchers have discovered and tracked many comets and asteroids that travel through our neighborhood of space. The Planetary Society has funded several NEO researchers through its Gene Shoemaker grant program. Still, many more objects remain to be found, and the orbits of many known objects need to be better refined.