In 2009, NASA told Congress that it lacked the money needed to properly track large, Earth-approaching asteroids. A year later, Congress is at least showing some concern over the potential extinction of the human race.
Perhaps the most asteroid-aware lawmaker, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R - CA), has introduced a bill that would create a special government commission to study the threat of major collisions of asteroids - Near Earth Objects -- with the Earth.
Rep. Rohrabacher's bill "To establish a United States Commission on Planetary Defense" (H.R. 5587), would create within the legislative branch a United States Commission on Planetary Defense. The Commission would:
- determine capabilities of United States Government entities, nongovernment organizations, foreign governments and entities, and international bodies to detect, characterize, and neutralize potentially dangerous Near Earth Objects (NEOs);
- identify and evaluate roles and responsibilities of United States Government entities to detect, characterize, and neutralize potentially dangerous NEOs;
- determine United States effectiveness in leading international efforts to detect, characterize, and neutralize potentially dangerous NEOs;
- build upon United States Government and foreign analyses, studies, and assessments, without duplicating efforts, to determine current and required NEO characterization and mitigation capabilities;
- identify and report on technology development required to provide effective planetary defense from dangerous NEOs;
- and investigate and report to the President and Congress on its findings, conclusions and recommendations for corrective measures that can be taken to provide planetary defense.
The bill also requests a maximum budget of $2 million to fund the activities of the Commission on Planetary Defense.
While concern over near earth approaching asteroids has always been substantial, it may have reached a peak on Jan. 7, 2002, when a 300-yard-wide asteroid called 2001 YB missed the Earth by a little more than twice the distance to the Moon. Perhaps the scariest thing about asteroid 2001 YB5 was that it was detected only 12 days before its "close encounter."
Slightly more than a year later, an influential group of scientists and astronauts, including Apollo 17 moon mission astronaut Harrison Schmitt, wrote a letter to Congress urging the U.S. government to begin immediate preparations to deal with the threat of near Earth-approaching objects like asteroid 2001 YB5.
"We cannot rely on statistics alone to protect us from catastrophe;" they wrote. "[S]uch a strategy is like refusing to buy fire insurance because blazes are infrequent. Our country simply cannot afford to wait for the first modern occurrence of a devastating NEO impact before taking steps to adequately address this threat."
Now, seven years later, Rep. Rohrabacher's Commission on Planetary Defense would be at least "one small step" in that direction.