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Asteroid Hunt Proceeding; All It Needs Is Money

Astronomers are making good progress discovering and tracking large asteroids that could hit Earth, but they won't meet the goal set by Congress without dedicated funding, according to a report released today by the National Academies' National Research Council.

Congress directed NASA in 2005 to begin a program to locate and track the orbits of at least 90% of all Earth-crossing objects 140 meters in diameter or greater that might devastate a whole city. The program was supposed to reach this goal by 2020. Last year, Congress asked for a progress report.

The committee notes in an interim report that two previous and three existing efforts at observatories funded by NASA have already found more than 6000 near-Earth Objects (NEOs), but that they won't be able to meet the 90% goal, particularly in the case of objects as small as 140 meters in diameter. The main reason: The Administration has not requested money for that phase of the program to proceed, nor has Congress appropriated any.

One or two new facilities are needed, the panel concludes, as well as continued operations by the giant Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, with its unmatched ability to determine object size and track orbits. That won't happen, the report continues, unless new funding is made available. The panel did not recommend a specific amount needed to meet the 2020 goal.

The final report, due by the end of the year, will offer suggestions on how to better detect NEOs, how to assess the threats, and what if anything can be done about them.

Note: This item has been revised to correct the previous description of funding.