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The Daily Rundown
updated 2/27/2013 12:19:46 PM ET 2013-02-27T17:19:46

Most people don't spend a lot of time worrying about objects falling from the sky. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., isn't most people.

The sight of a fireball streaking across the Russian sky made some of the most compelling viral video we’ve ever seen. But it also drove home an important point: meteors slamming into Earth may be rare, but they happen. Is the U.S. prepared?

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., is a physicist who says the incident in Russia, combined with the relative near-miss by an asteroid on the same day should open people’s eyes about the risk posed by objects falling from the sky.

Meteors the size of the one that hit Russia (about 50 feet wide and 10,000 tons) penetrate Earth’s atmosphere about once every hundred years. Holt’s concern is that a NASA program designed to track these objects is being severely underfunded and could be at risk of more cuts under the sequester. “It’s worth remembering that the government does have a role in protection and defense and security,” Holt said. “And yes, things that fall from the sky. This is not the time to be talking about budget cutting.”

NASA has identified about 10,000 objects it describes as “near-earth” objects–asteroids or comets that could intersect with our planet’s orbit. Of those, 863 are believed to be a kilometer wide or more–big enough to cause regional, even global devastation in the event of an impact.

In 1908, a meteor exploded above the Siberian wilderness, flattening 800 square miles–an area larger than New York City. Rep. Holt says NASA is making progress in identifying asteroids that could do that kind of damage, but still has a way to go. “They are seeing more and more of them so if there is one that poses a real hazard–a more immediate threat to the earth–we have a pretty good chance…I guess at this point, a fair chance of detecting it.”

Video: Meteor crash, near-miss by an asteroid raise concerns

  1. Closed captioning of: Meteor crash, near-miss by an asteroid raise concerns

    >>> today's deep dive, skyfall. earlier this month, a pair of major astronomic events gave the world a wake-up call. the fall of a meteor over russia became an internet sensation. the object is believed to be around 50 feet wide and 10,000 tons when it entered the earth 's atmosphere injured some 1,200 people when it slammed into earth . the meteor was a surprise, even more so because it came just hours before another cosmic event. later the same day, an asteroid passed about 17,000 miles from earth , closer than some satellites. the astronaut was expected, but it hadn't been on nasa 's radar, until its discovery by an observatory in spain a couple years before. these two objects have put a new spotlight on objects that pose a risk to earth on any given day. most burns up or is so small we don't know it. nasa is aware of some 20,000 pieces of debris that are currently orbiting the earth that are the size of a softball or large. but the real concern is around neos or near earth objects or asteroids that could conceivably enter our atmosphere. 863 are asteroids with a diameter roughly half a mile or larger, which if they struck earth , could produce a major global catastrophe . a study from m.i.t. found that these kind of asteroids only hit the earth every 600,000 years or so, but smaller asteroids, like the ones that hit russia , are far more common, like once every hundred years. prior to this, the most famous example was the so-called tunguska event in 1978 . an asteroid leveled 800 miles of forest and creating a seismic shock wave as far away as western europe . but the good news, no major asteroids are believed to be on a collision course with earth , though scientists admit they haven't detected all of them. that brings us to what washington can do with them. russ holt is a physicist, former director of the princeton plasma physics laboratory . congressman holt, you know, not everybody that's a member of congress is a physicist, so that's why we like having you on. nasa , i guess the thing that is so disturbing -- the thing that is so disturbing about what happened in russia and what happened with that asteroid is that our own space program , nasa , did not know about either incident first. that it was sort of discovered elsewhere. why is that?

    >> well, over the last ten years, our tracking has grown tremendously, from following just a few dozen meteors, asteroids, over, you know, a decade ago, to now tracking, as you point out, 10,000 to 20,000. your lead-in was really very complete and very good. and it's -- we've come a long way in tracking these things. in 2005 , congress directed nasa to be able to track 90% of these objects that are greater than 150 feet. and we're nowhere close to that yet. the goal was to achieve that by 2030 . in order to do that would require a much larger program than exists now. but they are seeing more and more of them. so if there is one that poses a real hazard, a more immediate threat to the earth , we have a pretty good chance or, i guess, at this point, a fair chance of detecting it.

    >> well, but we wouldn't have detected the russian -- should the russian meteor, the meteor that hit russia , been something nasa , by 2030 , should be able to detect?

    >> the russian -- the meteor that exploded a couple weeks ago, you know, it might have been detected, but it was not in the goal, in the target group . so the size is smaller than this, you know, goal to detect 90% of the 150-foot and larger me meteoroids by 2030 and attract them.

    >> obviously, nasa has been something the president has been willing to cut. when he offers budget cuts, nasa is always the first on the chopping block . ditto with congress. there isn't this same popularity to nasa as there was 20 and 30 years ago, when congress enjoyed giving it money. should this be part of national defense , in a way? and if it was, to be a total cynic here, since the defense department always gets the money it wants, would that speed up the ability of nasa to do this?

    >> well, nasa is now funded at about $20 million for this program. the national academy of sciences said it would take about $50 million a year to be able to reach this goal of detecting and tracking 90% of these. i'm sure your viewers are wondering, why is chuck todd talking about meteors, you know, on the eve of the huge budget cuts. well, you know, there is an appropriate role for government. and in this -- in the days of these strong anti-government campaigns, it's worth remembering that the government does have a role in protection and defense and security and in inspection, and enforcement of food safety and environmental pollution . and yes, things that fall from the sky . so, this is not a time to be talking about budget cutting, i would argue.

    >> all right. rush holt , congress' only physicist, perhaps, probably, at least on the iq basis, the smartest guy in congress.

    >> well, thanks, chuck.

    >> some people might say that's a low bar these day, but, anyway, rush holt , thank you very much.

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