It seems a little late to talk about the potential dangers from above as an asteroid 150 feet across flies by closer than the moon and more than 400 people have been injured by a meteor in Russia. But if there is one thing that today’s headlines highlight, it’s that we do not have the capacity to protect ourselves from space.
As hyperbolic as that may sound, it’s true: Asteroid 2012 DA14, the hunk of rock hurtling 17,000 miles above us today, wasn’t discovered until last year — too late to do anything about it, had it been on a collision course. According to comments from Ed Lu, a former astronaut and head of a nonprofit dedicated to protecting humanity from asteroids, “[w]e only know the locations and trajectories of about 1 percent of asteroids this size or larger […] So for every one of these, there’s 99 out there we don’t know about.”
Had 2012 DA14 hit the Earth, the impacts would have been comparable to the 1908 Tungusta Event that devastated 2.150 square km with an estimated 10 and 20 megaton explosion. But while, the Tungusta Event hit an isolated pocket of Eastern Russia, because of our lack of interstellar observational capacity we don’t yet know where the next major impact will hit — or if it will be a few hundred feet across like in Tungusta, or up to 20 kilometers like the asteroid that new evidence shows struck Australia between 298 and 360 million years ago.
Despite the evidence that space represents some very real risks to humanity, President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal decreased NASA’s overall budget by $59 million, to $17.7 billion with another marginal decrease in the 2013 proposed budget. While that may seem minor, the NASA budget has decreased from above 5 percent of GDP at the height of the space race to around half a percentage point today, as shown by this chart via azizonomics:
The very existence of Lu’s nonprofit and NASA’s budget cuts are evidence that the U.S. isn’t taking this truly global security issue seriously.
It’s a rough time for science right now:The U.S. is facing serious negative impacts on long-term economic competitiveness due to research and development cuts and politicians deemed “saviors” choose to ignore the evidence of climate change. But maybe today’s headlines will be enough to spur the nation’s leaders to have a serious dialogue about investing in space research.