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Congress Frets About How Much It’d Cost|To Save Earth From a City-Killer Asteroid

WASHINGTON (CN) - The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology shied away Wednesday from pledging tax money to track down and deflect "city-killer" asteroids, but called for international and private help during a hearing on giant space rocks.

"Congratulations," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Colo., told B612 Foundation CEO Dr. Ed Lu, whose organization has been raising money to build a space-based telescope system that will orbit the sun, tracking city-killer asteroids that aren't detectable by NASA and Earth-bound amateur astronomers.

"Really, congratulations for not using taxpayer dollars," Rohrabacher said.

Lu's B612 Foundation announced in June 2012 that it plans to raise money to build a Sentinel infrared telescope, to discover, map and track asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

Lu told the committee that the 6½-year Sentinel mission will "significantly improve the efficiency of asteroid discovery."

Based on the current tracking of asteroids loitering around the solar system, NASA and astronomers around the world can't do much worse.

"In our first hearing we learned that of the estimated 20,000 asteroids that could be labeled as city-killers, we have identified only 10 percent," said Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R- Texas. "And we are unlikely to have the means to detect them until 2030."

But, Smith said, "In these fiscally challenging times, [the government and private sector] can't afford duplication or the inefficient use of our recourses. The more we discuss and understand the challenges we face, the easier it will be to facilitate possible solutions."

As the hearing began, Smith showed a small plastic bag containing a piece of the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February.

"This isn't toxic, is it?" Smith asked Dr. Donald Yeomans, a near-Earth objects expert with NASA.

Yeomans shook his head no while the gallery laughed nervously.

Yeomans testified that the concurrent space events in February - the Russian meteor that crashed to Earth on the same day a football field-size asteroid buzzed the planet a little too closely for comfort - motivated the European Space Agency to start discussing what scientists say is a global issue.

Utah Republican Chris Stewart asked Lu how much notice is needed to deflect a city-killer headed our way.

"Decades," Lu said. "In ten years, you can do this in a much more controlled manner. Anything shorter, you have to deflect the object more."

Dr. Michael A'Hearn, vice chairman of the Committee to Review Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies for the National Research Council, testified that mitigation efforts won't be as easy blowing something up.

A'Hearn said it takes about 4 years to launch a typical space mission, and it's much more difficult to predict how much time we'll need to prepare a mission to land on an asteroid and blow it up, or hit it with a laser and deflect it.

"We have the technology to deflect asteroids well in advance, but we can't deflect what we haven't found," said A'Hearn. He said that discovering the asteroids is of paramount importance.

As witnesses stressed the importance of discovering and tracking asteroids in time to deflect them, committee members kept fretting about the cost.

Top NASA official Charles Bolden told the committee in March that President Obama's plan to send astronauts to a meteor will cost billions.

A'Hearn told the Committee on Wednesday that NASA's mitigation options are in their infancy, and will take years - and money - to realize.

"We're not starting from nothing, but we're starting from a very low point," he said.

Lu, who said his nonprofit raised a few million dollars last year for the Sentinel mission, said his project will cost less than a wing in a museum.

"Money is no issue if something is barreling toward the planet," Lu said.

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