Congress to Hold Hearings on Meteorite Protection as NASA Funds New Project

At Least Four Lawmakers Call for Action

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A Russian meteor strike near the Ural Mountains in Siberia has prompted two American lawmakers to call for action. Scientists are just now finding meteorite pieces that fell to Earth Friday, according to ABC News . Residents of the tiny village in Russia aren't used to the attention thanks to the chunk of rock that exploded over the town as it traveled 46,000 mph.

The meteor has also caught the attention of four members of Congress who suggest something must be done to prevent a larger calamity in the future. A project at the University of Hawaii has been approved for NASA funding that will help detect asteroids as early as 2015.

* Rep. Lamar Smith , R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, promised he "will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth."

* Smith noted the Russian meteor strike happened in conjunction with a very close fly-by of another heavenly body, Asteroid 2012 DA14, which came within 17,000 miles of the planet's atmosphere. NASA believes the meteor strike and the much larger asteroid aren't connected since the space rocks were traveling in opposite directions.

* Smith also called for more investment in "space science" to "develop contingencies" for asteroids that pose a danger to Earth. The representative said America's "work is not done" as a leader in the space industry.

* Science World Report indicates NASA approved the University of Hawaii's ATLAS system. Known as the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, a series of telescopes and high-res cameras will give a one-week warning for asteroids as big as 50 yards wide as such objects approach Earth. The system can detect 150-yard asteroids with three weeks' notice.

* The Earth-based ATLAS telescopes will scan the sky twice each night to try to detect anything. The targets are faint objects in the night sky. The system is designed to give enough time for evacuations of cities and areas affected by a direct hit or by resulting tsunami waves.

* NASA gave ATLAS a $5 million grant for the Hawaii project. It will be online with up to eight telescopes by 2015. The first disbursement of funds came in January.

* Another lawmaker, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher , R-Calif., took a tough stance. He said the meteor explosion over Russia "should serve as a wake-up call." Rohrabacher complained America has "no plan that can protect the Earth from any comet or asteroid." The lawmaker then called such objects a "clear danger" to human life and wants to "expedite a hearing on planetary protection... ."

* The Los Angeles Times reveals Rohrabacher has been a proponent of asteroid protection even before the Russian meteor blast. He sponsored legislation to create a Commission on Planetary Defense which can develop strategies to deal with near-Earth objects.

* Two Democrats, Reps. Rush Holt of New Jersey and Donna Edwards of Maryland, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post . They believe "Congress should continue to invest in day-to-day disaster planning" in addition to allocating resources "to track near-Earth objects and prepare for disasters of all kinds."

* NASA has had a goal since 2005 to find 90 percent of all near-Earth objects greater than 500 feet in diameter. The ATLAS project is part of that goal, even though the overall project has been underfunded by tens of millions of dollars.

William Browning is a research librarian specializing in U.S. politics.

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