Two-step approach needed to combat asteroid threat, astronomy program director says

Wednesday, March 7, 2007
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A conference underway this week in Washington D.C. is focusing on the potential threat of an asteroid striking the earth. The director of the astronomy lab program at the University of North Texas says the threat is real, but the problem is there's no money for any tracking efforts.

Ron DiIulio, who is also a NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador, says searches for potentially dangerous asteroids happen often. But he adds a two-step approach is needed to combat any problems.

"First, we have to identify the potentially hazardous asteroids. Far too often, we see them when they pass away from the earth, but we didn't know they was coming," he says. "Secondly, we have to deflect or alter their path. NASA has plans and methods to do this, but what happens is we need to develop interest in it."

An asteroid the size of a football field, he says, could destroy a large metropolitan area.

Sponsored by NASA, the "Planetary Defense Conference" is specifically concentrating on the threat posed by the asteroid Apophis, which could pass within 18,000 miles of Earth twice between 2029 and 2036. DiIulio says NASA predicts the cost of finding 90 percent of the 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids and comets could reach $1 billion by 2020.

Astronomers at UNT's Monroe observatory are currently using four telescopes to search for asteroids, DiIulio says.

"Just last week, we identified three known asteroids," he says.

DiIulio hopes that within a year, UNT will be able to take part in the Telescopes In Education program to help track these asteroids.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108