CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A space rock even bigger than the meteor that exploded like an atom bomb over Russia could drop out of the sky unannounced at any time and cause mayhem on a city.
And Hollywood to the contrary, there isn't much the world's scientists and generals can do about it.
But some former astronauts want to give the world a fighting chance.
They're hopeful Friday's cosmic coincidence – Earth's close brush with a 150-foot asteroid, hours after the 49-foot meteor struck in Russia – will draw attention to the dangers lurking in outer space and lead to action, such as better detection and tracking of asteroids.
“After today, a lot of people will be paying attention,” said Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1969, helped establish the planet-protecting B612 Foundation and has been warning NASA for years to put more muscle and money into a heightened asteroid alert.
Earth is menaced all the time by meteors, which are chunks of asteroids or comets that enter Earth's atmosphere. But many if not most of them are simply too small to detect from afar with the tools now available to astronomers.
The meteor that shattered over the Ural Mountains was estimated to be 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. It blew out thousands of windows and left more than 1,000 people injured in Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million. And yet no one saw it coming; it was about the size of a bus.
“This is a tiny asteroid,” said astronomer Paul Chodas, who works in NASA's Near-Earth Object program in Pasadena, Calif. “It would be very faint and difficult to detect — not impossible, but difficult.”
As for the three-times-longer asteroid that hurtled by Earth later Friday, passing closer to the planet than some communications satellites, astronomers in Spain did not even discover it until a year ago. That would have been too late for pre-emptive action – such as the launch of a deflecting spacecraft – if it had been on a collision course with Earth.
Asteroid 2012 DA14, as it is known, passed harmlessly within 17,150 miles of Earth, zooming by at 17,400 mph, or 5 miles per second.
Scientists believe there are anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million “near-Earth” asteroids comparable in size to DA14 or bigger out there. But less than 1 percent have actually been spotted. Astronomers have catalogued only 9,600 of them, of which nearly 1,300 are bigger than 0.6 miles.
Earth's atmosphere gets hit with 100 tons of junk every day, most of it the size of sand, and most of it burning up before it reaches the ground, according to NASA.
“These fireballs happen about once a day or so, but we just don't see them because many of them fall over the ocean or in remote areas. This one was an exception,” said NASA's Jim Green, director of planetary science, of the meteor in Russia.
A 100- to 130-foot asteroid exploded over Siberia in 1908 and flattened 825 square miles of forest, while the rock that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was a monster 6 miles across.
The chances of Earth getting hit without warning by one of the big ones are “extremely low, so low that it's ridiculous. But the smaller ones are quite different,” Schweickart said. He warned: “If we get hit by one of them, it's most likely we wouldn't have known anything about it before it hit.”
Chodas said the meteor strike in Russia is “like Mother Nature is showing us what a small one – a tiny one, really – can do.”
All this points up the need for more money for tracking of near-Earth objects, according to Schweickart and the former space shuttle and station astronaut who now heads up the B612 Foundation, Ed Lu.
A few years ago, Schweickart and others recommended NASA launch a $250 million-a-year program to survey asteroids and work up a deflection plan. After 10 years of cataloging, the annual price tag could drop to $75 million, they said.
“Unfortunately, NASA never acted on any of our recommendations,” he lamented. “So the result of it is that instead of having $250 million a year and working on this actively, NASA now has $20 million. ... It's peanuts.”
Congress immediately weighed in on Friday.
“Today's events are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House science, space and technology committee. He called for a hearing in the coming weeks.
Bill Cooke, head of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said the space agency takes asteroid threats seriously. Annual spending on asteroid-detection at NASA has gone from $4 million a few years ago to $20 million now.
“NASA has recognized that asteroids and meteoroids and orbital debris pose a bigger problem than anybody anticipated decades ago,” Cooke said.
Schweickart's B612 Foundation – named after the asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's “Le Petit Prince” – has been unwilling to wait and is putting together a privately funded mission to launch an infrared telescope that would orbit the sun to hunt and track asteroids.
Its need cannot be underestimated, Schweickart warned. Real life is unlike movies such as “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact.” Scientists will need to know 15, 20 or 30 years in advance of a killer rock's approach to undertake an effective asteroid-deflection campaign, he said, because it would take a long time for the spacecraft to reach the asteroid for a good nudge.
“That's why we want to find them now,” he said.
As Chodas observed Friday, “It's like a shooting gallery here.”