Feds: Finding an Incoming Asteroid is 1/20,000th as Important as Homeland Security

By Corey S. Powell | February 16, 2013 10:17 am

One effective way to measure the priorities of the U.S. government is to look at where it directs spending. So in the aftermath of the close passage of asteroid 2012 DA and the much more frightening (and impactful, in the literal sense) aerial impact of a large meteor over Russia, I took a look back at how funding goes to the detection of potentially harmful asteroids. The short answer: amazingly little.

Trail of the large meteor, or bolide, that hit above Chelyabinsk, Russia. (Credit: Nikita Plekhanov)

The leading ground-based search for new potentially hazardous asteroids is the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona, currently the recipient of a $4.1 million, three-year NASA grant to upgrade its facilities. NASA is also directing $5 million over the next five years to build up the new¬†Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) at the University of Hawaii. Combined with some other, smaller grants to existing programs and to data analysis from older projects, the total comes to about $3 million a year. (It is hard to extract an exact number here, since “asteroid detection” is not broken out as a discrete federal funding category.)

For comparison, the 2013 budget request for Homeland Security was nearly $70 billion, or more than 20,000 times as great. To be fair, there are other federal projects that support our understanding of asteroids and asteroid threats, such as the sky-monitoring PanSTARRS facility and NASA’s upcoming big-budget OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid¬†1999 RQ36 (more of a planetary science project than a planetary protection project, but related all the same). On the other hand, Homeland Security is a small fraction of the proposed $614 billion US defense budget, and there are many other federal programs that support various kinds of disaster-related research and mitigation.

Even the new ATLAS project will not be able to detect incoming objects smaller than about 50 meters (150 feet), so the Russian meteor–now estimated to have been about 15 meters across before it reached Earth’s atmosphere–would not have shown up. If you want to know why we don’t have any facility capable of providing an early warning of such city-rattling meteors, just follow the cash. Asteroid detection currently accounts for about one millionth — that’s right, 1/1,000,000th — of the total federal budget.

  • garcol euphrates

    In view of overwhelming and ubiquitous political blindsightedness, this doesn’t seem surprising at all!

  • http://twitter.com/rob_krol rob krol

    that be change if one day asteroid destroy city like denver paris or berlin of course that be to late for milions people :(

  • Ananda

    This is the general way that governments go about distributing funds. Before 9/11, there wasn’t even a Homeland Security department to have 70 billion going to. Now, of course, we’ve dumped many billions every year for the sake of national security. As Mr Krol has stated, that will change if a city or town is hit hard by an asteroid or meteor large enough to kill thousands or more. They always tend to fix things after they happen rather than before…

  • outpost

    If they want the “Homeland” Secure and aren’t looking up and preparing then Homeland Security is nothing but bells and whistles. If a plane gets hi-jacked it will cause far less damage to America then not preparing for an impact that could have been mitigated somewhat or warnings issued to save lives. I don’t know how much should be spent, the Professionals can deal with that, but failing to act now is ignorant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Vincent-Wolf/100000568457300 Vincent Wolf

    Homeland security is a joke. Meteors are no joke.

    • coreyspowell

      (author) There’s no need to be so complicated about it. Very small changes in velocity are enough to shift an Earth-threatening asteroid if you find it years ahead of time, as even a modest search program would do. Then you can do simple things like gravity tractors, thruster engines, or even just coloring the surface to change the way it radiates heat to nudge the asteroid into a safe course. The macho ideas about blasting and smashing are dramatic, but probably much more difficult and much less effective.

  • Alejandro Ortiz

    i have learned something interesting, a fact. To deflect meteors you simply must paint or wear white. Like the sun, if you wear black, your attracting heat, if you wear white, your actually deflecting the suns rays which means you can actually push an oncoming meteor away.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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