Today in Earth-Ending Asteroid Alarmism

Rumors about the shutdown ruining our capacity to detect humanity-destroying asteroids aren’t true.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Oct. 11, 2013, 6:08 a.m.

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.

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