Dateline: July 14, 2003
In a letter to Congress, a group of space-savvy Americans have urged the U.S. government to begin immediate preparations to deal with the threat of near Earth-approaching objects, also called NEOs.
NEO's include objects such as asteroids and comets whose orbits around the sun place them in or near a potential collision path with the Earth. The damage caused by the impact of large NEO, say the concerned citizens, could potentially lead to the extinction of the human race.
Survival of civilization itself
In an "Open Letter to Congress on Near Earth Objects," the citizens group writes, "A growing body of scientific evidence shows that some of these celestial bodies, also known as Near Earth Objects (NEOs), pose a potentially devastating threat of collision with Earth, capable of causing widespread destruction and loss of life. The largest such impacts can not only threaten the survival of our nation, but even that of civilization itself."
Among signers of the letter are: Apollo 17 Astronaut, Harrison Schmitt; Neil Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium; Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University; Lucy Ann McFadden, NEO scientist at the University of Maryland; New York University professor and author, William Burrows; John Lewis, a scientist at the University of Arizona, Tucson; and Thomas Jones, former astronaut and veteran of four shuttle missions.
Copies of the letter were also sent to President Bush, all Cabinet Secretaries, the United Nations and leaders of nations around the world.
A three-step approach to protection
The letter asks Congress to fund a three-step program designed to deal with the threat of NEO impact:
"1. NEO Detection - Expand and enhance this nation's capability to detect and to determine the orbits and physical characteristics of NEOs.
"2. NEO Exploration: Expand robotic exploration of asteroids and Earth-approaching comets and direct that U.S. astronauts again leave low-Earth orbit . . . this time to further explore certain NEOs in deep space for information required to develop an effective capability to deflect an NEO should we learn that one threatens life on Earth.
"3. NEO Contingency Planning: Initiate comprehensive contingency planning for deflecting any NEO found to pose a potential threat to Earth. In parallel, plan to meet the disaster relief needs created by an impending or actual NEO impact. U.S. government/private sector planning should invite international cooperation in addressing the problems of NEO detection, potential hazards and actual impacts."
The letter calls on Congress to immediately increase the level of funding devoted to NEO detection and tracking, currently about $3.5 million per year, to over $20 million a year.
"For the first time in human history, we have the potential to protect ourselves from a catastrophe of truly cosmic proportions," concludes the letter. "We cannot rely on statistics alone to protect us from catastrophe; such 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.
"On January 7, 2002, the asteroid 2001 YB5 missed our planet by a bit more than twice the distance to the Moon. If this 300-yard-wide, stadium-sized object, discovered only 12 days before its closest approach, had hit the Earth's continental landmasses, it would have destroyed nearly everyone and everything in an area about the size of New England. An ocean impact would also have spawned huge tsunamis, with the potential for damage to coastal areas beyond anything in historical experience."