The Herald Bulletin

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February 15, 2013

Two space rocks hours apart point up the danger

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A space rock even bigger than the meteor that exploded like an atom bomb over Russia could drop out of the sky unannounced at any time and wreak havoc on a city. And Hollywood to the contrary, there isn't much the world's scientists and generals can do about it.

But some former astronauts want to give the world a fighting chance.

They're hopeful Friday's cosmic coincidence — Earth's close brush with a 150-foot asteroid, hours after the 49-foot meteor struck in Russia — will draw attention to the dangers lurking in outer space and lead to action, such as better detection and tracking of asteroids.

"After today, a lot of people will be paying attention," said Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1969, helped establish the planet-protecting B612 Foundation and has been warning NASA for years to put more muscle and money into a heightened asteroid alert.

Earth is menaced all the time by meteors, which are chunks of asteroids or comets that enter Earth's atmosphere. But many if not most of them are simply too small to detect from afar with the tools now available to astronomers.

The meteor that shattered over the Ural Mountains was estimated to be 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. It blew out thousands of windows and left more than 1,000 people injured in Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million. And yet no one saw it coming; it was about the size of a bus.

"This is a tiny asteroid," said astronomer Paul Chodas, who works in NASA's Near-Earth Object program in Pasadena, Calif. "It would be very faint and difficult to detect — not impossible, but difficult."

As for the three-times-longer asteroid that hurtled by Earth later in the day Friday, passing closer to the planet than some communications satellites, astronomers in Spain did not even discover it until a year ago. That would have been too late for pre-emptive action — such as the launch of a deflecting spacecraft — if it had been on a collision course with Earth.

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