- The Department of Defense should set up an early warning
center so the information it collects about asteroids, comets and other
near-Earth objects (NEOs) can quickly be shared with other countries, according
to Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden, deputy director
for operations at U.S. Space Command.
- Worden said July 10 at a Capitol Hill space round-table
that a June incident involving an asteroid over the Mediterranean Sea underscored
the need for a center to warn about natural objects that could cross Earthís
orbit. When the asteroid, estimated at five to 10 meters in diameter, collided
with the Earthís atmosphere, it released a burst of energy comparable
to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II.
- If the June 6 burst had occurred over India or Pakistan,
which were on the brink of war at the time, it could have been mistaken
for a military attack, pushing the two countries into a full-scale conflict,
- "Neither of those nations has the sophisticated
sensors we do that can determine the difference between a natural NEO impact
and a nuclear detonation," Worden said. "The resulting panic
in the nuclear-armed and hair-trigger militaries there could have been
the spark" for a nuclear war.
- DOD currently gives NEO information to foreign countries
on an informal basis, a process that can take weeks. Formalizing the process
with a new early warning center could expedite that process, Worden said.
- A recent study concluded that such a center could be
formed with just five to 10 people at U.S. space facilities in Cheyenne
Mountain, Colo., Worden added. While the center would need only a modest
amount of equipment to get started, it likely would influence the requirements
for the next-generation space surveillance system now under development.
At the moment, DOD has not given anyone the go-ahead to set up such a center.
- Worden also said that the U.S. should step up efforts
to develop microsatellites, which can be produced and launched with far
less money and time than regular satellites. Microsatellites could collect
detailed information about a specific NEO, including its internal structure.
Such information could be critical to figuring out how to divert the NEO
from Earthís path.
- Building a new set of ground-based telescopes that are
three meters in diameter also would be helpful because it would allow the
U.S. to scan the entire sky every few weeks, according to Worden. The nationís
most effective NEO sensor, MITís Lincoln Lab LINEAR facility in
New Mexico, misses many NEOs because its main optics are only one meter
- Another roundtable speaker, Colleen Hartman, director
of NASAís solar system exploration division, said 602 NEOs with
a diameter of one kilometer or more have been identified, a number that
could grow to as many as 1,080 with further study. The U.S. has focused
its detection efforts on such large NEOs because they could cause a global
catastrophe. NASA is studying ways to detect smaller ones, which could
number in the hundreds of thousands, because they still could cause serious
devastation, Hartman said.
- - Marc Selinger (marc_selinger@AviationNow.com)