It's going to happen again. Rocks varying in size from tractor trailers to olympic swimming pools are going to hit the earth again and the only question will be where? Over a major city would be a catastrophe.
Even the small asteroid that blew up in the atmosphere over Russia yesterday could have been a lot worse. Instead of blowing out windows and injuring more than a thousand people when it detonated over eastern Siberia, if it had happened above New York, skyscrapers would have been flattened and numerous fires would have started, killing thousands.
We are the first generation of humans who actually have the capability - or at least the imagination - to identify these space rocks while they are still years away from doing us damage and take measures to prevent them from striking earth.
All that's needed is the will to spend the money to make it a reality.
Despite our ignorance of the threat, and despite all of the warnings we've received - from Tunguska, to Shoemaker-Levy 9, and now the latest hit and close pass - it has been difficult to get Congress to adequately fund the kind of systems we need. The nature of the orbits of these objects means that they're hard to see from Earth, partly because we have to look toward the Sun. The best place to look for them is from far out in the solar system, which requires a space telescope that can operate many millions of miles from Earth. As Dr. Lu notes in his piece, we can't wait for the government any more. He's founded a private non-profit foundation to raise the funds from individuals with more foresight than the solons on the Hill, and to build and launch such a telescope, called "Sentinel." He's also developed a method of gently moving such objects, called a gravity tractor, without breaking them up, which would just create a potentially bigger mess. And of course, beyond this non-profit effort, two companies have formed in the past year - Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries - who plan to mine such bodies for profit, which will of necessity involve technologies required to both find and move them.
So call your congressman, and tell him that we need to do more, but it will be even more productive to make a donation to an organization that is determined to do so, and to support the new space mining industry. If saving the planet from the Carbon Menace is worth trillions in lost economic growth, surely today's events are a timely reminder that we can save it from something that we know has had devastating effects, at times wiping out much of the life on it, for only paltry millions.
Rep. Lamar Smith has called for congressional hearings on the subject:
Rep. Lamar Smith on Friday called for hearings on space science and exploration, following the aftermath of the meteor that landed and an asteroid making its close fly-by of Earth.
"Developing technology and research that enable us to track objects like Asteroid 2012 DA14 is critical to our future," said the Texas Republican, who is also chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, in his committee statement. "We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth. "Today's events are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science."
Despite Simberg's acknowledgement of private efforts to deal with the issue, the fact is, private companies may still be getting their act together when the next crisis occurs. A "Sentinel" like telescope launched by NASA - or done in partnership with the agency - could be a reality in the next few years.
It's time for Congress to get serious about this threat to our civilization.