Nightly News   |  March 19, 2013

NASA asks for funding to hunt asteroids

The space agency says it needs more money to protect the planet by identifying near-Earth objects that could pose a threat. NBC’s Stephanie Gosk reports.

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>>> russia really got our attention a few weeks back. we learned today about the threat of such things to our modern world . in the meteor and asteroid tracking business, they call the big one withes city killers. while there was very little good news today about our chances of getting them before they get us, there was talk about future remedies. our report tonight from nbc's stephanie gosk.

>> reporter: last month a meteor rocketed into the atmosphere and exploded over russia . frightening because the shock wave blew out windows and injured 1,200 people.

>> it came out of the sun. it came from a direction where our telescopes could not look.

>> reporter: today at a hearing on capitol hill , leading space scientists told lawmakers the u.s. is not prepared to defend itself of meteors of the same size.

>> if you detected even a small one like the one ta dehat detonated in russia , headed for new york city in three weeks, what would we do?

>> the answer to you is if it's coming in three weeks, pray.

>> reporter: scientists say they have identified all asteroids large enough to wipe out the planet like the one suspected of killing off the dinosaurs. there is no immediate risk. the concern is meteors that are smaller, but still big enough to take out a city.

>> the number of undetected potential city killers is very large. it's in the range of 10,000 or more.

>> reporter: the probability of impact is low, they say. but at present funding levels nasa believes it will take almost 20 years to identify them all. what would help is an infrared telescope . the government won't pay for one. but a former astronaut is looking to build the first ever privately funded deep space telescope. nasa is collaborating on the project, but the space agency said it needs more money to identify and develop ways to protect the planet.

>> a good segment of the population thinks it's a matter of calling bruce willis . notwithstanding we don't have a shuttle anymore.

>> reporter: hollywood's version is definitely a bit dramatic. but scientists say there is reason to be concerned. the meteor in russia was like a shot across the bow . stephanie gosk, nbc news, new york.