In February, a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, within 17,000 miles of Earth's surface. It was spotted not by NASA or any of the world's other space agencies but by an amateur astronomer in Spain, who was powerless to stop the 150-foot-wide rock from exploding over the Ural Mountains. It shattered windows across roughly 650,000 square feet of land. More than 1,000 people were injured, mostly by shattered glass.
Although just a few hours of notice could have helped residents of Chelyabinsk mightily, no observatory on Earth was equipped to detect it, even though the technology is readily available. For years astronauts such as Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart, who cofounded the private nonprofit B612 Foundation to hunt asteroids, have pushed to develop early-warning systems for rogue asteroids. Now, the United Nations is heeding the call.
Last week the General Assembly approved a set of measures to protect the planet from killer asteroids. The U.N. is forming an "International Asteroid Warning Group" for member nations to share intelligence on potentially hazardous asteroids, Scientific American reports. If a threatening space rock is detected, the U.N.'s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to deflect it, launching a spacecraft to slam into the object before it reaches Earth.
The move comes as one of the first steps suggested by members of the Association of Space Explorers, a collection of people interested in deflecting errant space rocks. "No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies," said Schweickart, speaking at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Friday. "NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency."
An Anderson Cooper segment earlier this month highlighted the scale of the problem: Scientists say there are more than 1 million near-Earth objects in space big enough to destroy a city, but that they only know where 1 percent of them are. The question is what to do about it. While the ASE advocates every nation delegating responsibility for asteroid preparedness to an internal agency, Schweickart's organization, the B612 Foundation, isn't waiting for a government-funded program.
The group is planning its own infrared space telescope, the Sentinel, which will launch in 2017 or 2018 if the money can be raised in time. The development and launch is expected to cost $450 million, an ambitious budget for a private organization.
Next ASE astronauts will ask the U.N. to set up a means for practicing asteroid deflection, so that we're not reliant on untried technologies, should an emergency occur. Speaking at Friday's museum event, Lu put it this way: "Chelyabinsk was bad luck," he said. "If we get hit again 20 years from now, that is not bad luck—that's stupidity."