The meteorite that rattled Siberia has suddenly brought new life
to efforts to deploy adequate detection tools, in particular a space
telescope that would scan the solar system for dangers.
For decades, scientists have been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet. But warnings that they lacked the tools to detect the most serious threats were largely ignored, even as skeptics mocked the worriers as Chicken Littles.
No more. The meteorite that rattled Siberia on Friday, injuring hundreds of people and traumatizing thousands, has suddenly brought new life to efforts to deploy adequate detection tools, in particular a space telescope that would scan the solar system for dangers.
A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw the shock wave on Friday as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more.
"Wouldn't it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren't looking?" said Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and Google executive who leads the detection effort. "This is a wake-up call from space. We've got to pay attention to what's out there."
Astronomers know of no asteroids or comets that pose a major threat to the planet. But NASA estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the big dangers have been discovered.
Dr. Lu's group, called the B612 Foundation after the imaginary asteroid on which the Little Prince lived, is one team of several pursuing ways to ward off extraterrestrial threats. NASA is another, and other private groups are emerging, like Planetary Resources, which wants not only to identify asteroids near Earth but also to mine them.
"Our job is to be the first line of defense, and we take that very seriously," James Green, the director of planetary science at NASA headquarters, said in an interview Friday after the Russian strike. "No one living on this planet has ever before been hurt. That's historic."
Dr. Green added that the Russian episode was sure to energize the field and that an even analysis of the meteor's remains could help reveal clues about future threats.
"Our scientists are excited," he said. "Russian planetary scientists are already collecting meteorites from this event."
The slow awakening to the danger began long ago, as scientists found hundreds of rocky scars indicating that cosmic intruders had periodically reshaped the planet.
The discoveries included not just those with obvious features, like Meteor Crater in Arizona, but also wide zones of upheaval. A crater more than 180 kilometers, or 110 miles, wide beneath the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico suggested that 66 million years ago, a speeding rock from outer space had raised enough planetary mayhem to end the reign of the dinosaurs.
Some people remain skeptical of the cosmic threat and are glad for taxpayer money to go toward urgent problems on earth rather than outer space. But many scientists who have examined the issues have become convinced that better precautions are warranted in much the same way that homeowners buy insurance for unlikely events that can result in severe damage to life and property.
Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, astronomers turned their telescopes skyward with increasing vigor to look for killer rocks.
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