Third Congressional Hearing on Asteroid Threat Coming Up Next Week

Third Congressional Hearing on Asteroid Threat Coming Up Next Week

A House subcommittee will hold a third congressional hearing on the threat to Earth posed by asteroids and comets on April 10, the same day President Obama will submit his FY2014 budget request to Congress.   The hearings were catalyzed by the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February.

Asteroids and comets that come close to Earth collectively are known as Near Earth Objects (NEOs).  The April 10 hearing, before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee, will feature Ed Lu, former astronaut and current head of the B612 Foundation; Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s NEO Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Lab; and Mike A’Hearn of the University of Maryland who co-chaired a 2009 National Research Council study on the NEO threat.

Lu testified to a Senate Commerce subcommittee in March.   His B612 Foundation is trying to raise funds, primarily from philanthropists, to build a space-based inrfared telescope that would be placed in a special orbit around the Sun that affords a better view of NEOs in Earth’s vicinity.  Ground-based telescopes and those in Earth orbit can only see sections of the sky and B612 wants to create a more complete catalog of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs).    Yeomans is one of the world’s leading authorities on identifying, tracking and cataloging NEOs as part of a NASA program that was mandated by Congress beginning in the 1990s.  The NRC study that A’Hearn co-chaired was requested by Congress in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act.   It looked at tracking and cataloging NEOs as well as how to mitigate the threat they pose to Earth.

The full HSS&T committee, which has led the charge over the past two deades in directing NASA to study NEOs, held the first of the three post-Chelyabinsk hearings on March 19.   Witnesses were Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren. Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.   The next day, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Science and Space held a hearing on space “threats” where Lu and Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, testified about the threat from NEOs.   The April 10 hearing, back on the House side, will continue the discussion.

The House and Senate committees hope to pass a new NASA authorization bill this year that may well address NEOs again.  While congressional interest in NEOs has been rather limited in the past to certain members of the House committee, the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk on February 15 stimulated much broader concern.  Over 1,000 people were injured, mostly from flying glass as windows broke from the shock wave created by the meteor passing through the atmosphere.   Asteroids are rocks in space.   When they enter Earth’s atmosphere, they are called meteors.  Any pieces that reach the ground are called meteorites.

In addition to tracking and cataloguing NEOs, NASA has sent robotic probes to study them.  The next U.S. probe, OSIRIS-Rex, is planned for launch in 2016.   President Obama also directed NASA to send humans to an asteroid by 2025.   A concept currently being promoted by a diverse array of groups as an alternative or adjunct is to capture an asteroid using a robotic spacecraft and tow it to a location close to Earth (perhaps placing it in orbit around the Moon) and send astronauts to study it there.    Aviation Week reports that the President’s FY2014 budget request includes $100 million to continue studies of such a mission.

The asteroid hearing is at 2:00 pm ET on April 10 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Buildkng.  The committee usually webcasts its hearings.

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