Has the shutdown ruined our ability to detect asteroids? Not really. But that hasn’t stopped publications around the Web from running alarmist headlines suggesting as much.
“NASA Shuts Down ‘Asteroid Watch’ In Wake Of US Government Crisis” reads a story published by HuffPost UK. “NASA asteroid watch closes due to government shutdown,” reads another. “If an asteroid starts hurtling toward Earth,” wrote one Fox News reporter in a recent story ““¦ well “¦ good luck.”
The alarmist stories are based on a single tweet from NASA’s Near Earth Object Office’s @AsteroidWatch twitter account.
In the event of government shutdown, we will not be posting or responding from this account. We sincerely hope to resume tweets soon.— Asteroid Watch (@AsteroidWatch) October 1, 2013
While some of those posts make clear lower down in the story that their headlines are actually about nothing more than the temporary closing of a twitter account, others never get there or maybe don’t even realize it. The fact of the matter is that the office remains operational with the exception of social media.
“The NASA-funded surveys, which are tasked with discovery of near-Earth objects, continue to operate,” DC Agle, spokesperson for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told National Journal in an email. “The NASA-funded Minor Planet Center (which is the clearinghouse of information about new discoveries) remains in operation. The Near-Earth Object Program Office, at JPL, which determines near-Earth object orbits, remains operational as well.”
Anderson Cooper had an excellent segment on Sunday, highlighting a larger problem: the fact that scientists say there are more than a million near-Earth objects in space big enough to destroy a city but that they only know where 1 percent of them are. And it’s true, as Cooper’s segment notes, that sometimes meteors are spotted by amateurs, as was the case in February when a 150-foot-wide rock passed within a mere 17,000 miles of Earth’s surface. And the fact that 18,000 NASA employees, or 97 percent of its work force, were furloughed on last week certainly doesn’t help matters. However, you can’t make any kind of argument based on NASA’s “Asteroid Watch” program (read: twitter account) without being disingenuous.
There’s a serious conversation to be had about securing more government funds for asteroid-watch programs so that researchers aren’t so reliant on privately funded projects, and lots of people are already making it. But phony headlines about NASA supposedly closing its Near Earth Object Office don’t make the cut.