Trump Urges Congress for Money to Defend Earth Against Disastrous Asteroids
Amid delays over a new congressional spending bill, NASA astronomers are worried they won’t get the money to protect the country against asteroids. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, once an obscure section of NASA, has recently gained attention as astronomers have brought concerns over asteroid impacts into public consciousness. President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to increase the PDCO’s budget from $60 million to $150 million for the coming year, but as the clock ticks down to the Monday start of a new fiscal year for Congress, there is still no section of the bill that specifically addresses the PDCO’s budget.
Trump wants the bulk of the budget increase — about $100 million — to go toward an upcoming “Double Asteroid Redirect Test,” reports Politico. While this plan may sound like part of a hare-brained scheme to Make Space Great Again, NASA scientists really do think a strategy to divert a potentially planet-destroying, massive Earth-bound asteroid is worth spending precious tax dollars on.
“If it were to impact near a metropolitan area, it would be a disaster on a scale more than anything we’ve tried to deal with in our history,” said NASA Designated Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson, reports Politico. NASA has counted 8,303 such objects.
The DART test would involve an uncrewed spacecraft ramming into a small moon orbiting the asteroid Didymos, with the intention of changing the moon’s orbit. In 2022, Didymos will reportedly fly by about seven million miles from Earth. This may sound like a long way away, but the PDCO classifies any asteroid within five million miles of Earth as a potentially hazardous asteroid. As part of a comprehensive planetary protection tactic, the proposed DART would provide evidence that one of a handful of strategies that has been proposed over the years could work to protect Earth from a cataclysmic asteroid collision.
As Inverse reported in 2016, NASA scientists had already identified over 13,500 near-Earth asteroids since 1998, with approximately 1,500 more identified per year. Out of these, at least 10 percent are estimated to be one kilometer (3,300 feet) in diameter or larger, a threshold at which collision with Earth would be catastrophic. According to more recent numbers, there are at least 10,000 objects within 30 million miles of Earth that are at least 300 feet in diameter. But even asteroids as small as 460 feet across would cause serious harm if they struck certain areas on Earth.
While there’s no asteroid currently threatening impending doom, NASA astronomers are worried that too many delays in funding tests will make it harder and harder to verify whether proposed strategies will work.
The DART idea is just one of them. Other asteroid-busting strategies include gravity tractors and nuclear detonations. In the former, the gravitational pull of an orbiting satellite drags an asteroid off-course. The latter, well, is a freaking bomb meant to knock an asteroid off-course.
Unfortunately, conflicts over priorities for space projects are not new, as we saw when Congress and the White House killed an asteroid redirect mission in 2017. In the case of DART, disagreement between the Trump administration and Congress over the importance of planetary protection could prevent the PDCO from developing strategies far enough in advance of an asteroid collision to be useful.
“If it only lasts two months, the effect will be minimal,” Johnson told Politico. “However, if it lasts close to six months like it did last year, projects will start to be impacted.”