The sight of a fireball streaking across the Russian sky made some of the most compelling viral video we've ever seen. But it also drove home an important point: meteors slamming into Earth may be rare, but they happen. Is the U.S. prepared?
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., is a physicist who says the incident in Russia, combined with the relative near-miss by an asteroid on the same day should open people's eyes about the risk posed by objects falling from the sky.
Meteors the size of the one that hit Russia (about 50 feet wide and 10,000 tons) penetrate Earth's atmosphere about once every hundred years. Holt's concern is that a NASA program designed to track these objects is being severely underfunded and could be at risk of more cuts under the sequester. "It's worth remembering that the government does have a role in protection and defense and security," Holt said. "And yes, things that fall from the sky. This is not the time to be talking about budget cutting."
NASA has identified about 10,000 objects it describes as "near-earth" objects--asteroids or comets that could intersect with our planet's orbit. Of those, 863 are believed to be a kilometer wide or more--big enough to cause regional, even global devastation in the event of an impact.
In 1908, a meteor exploded above the Siberian wilderness, flattening 800 square miles--an area larger than New York City. Rep. Holt says NASA is making progress in identifying asteroids that could do that kind of damage, but still has a way to go. "They are seeing more and more of them so if there is one that poses a real hazard--a more immediate threat to the earth--we have a pretty good chance...I guess at this point, a fair chance of detecting it."