Eyes on Asteroids

Chris McKay is a planetary scientist with the Ames Research Center as well as the deputy lead scientist for the Constellation Program. Constellation is the program to go back to the moon and on to Mars. Orion is the vehicle that will carry the astronauts, using an Ares rocket. McKay is exploring ways to use Orion for other missions, such as sending a crew to land on an asteroid.

"It is exciting to think about rendezvousing with an asteroid and bringing back samples. What we could learn about the origins of the Earth is mind-boggling," he said.

Though McKay is excited about the possibility of landing on an asteroid, he says right now there is no mandate to start deflecting asteroids.

"Right now there is nothing out there that we know of with our name on it, but if we did find something, this mission could give the knowledge to deter a disaster."

An ounce of prevention is the mantra for scientists concerned about asteroids smacking into Earth. Both Schweickart and McKay use the failure of the levees in New Orleans after Katrina as an example of poor planning on all levels of government.

Is getting hit by an asteroid something to lose sleep over? Probably not, says Schweickart. He says people should be more concerned about the government's role in watching for an asteroid.

NASA's mandate is the Near Earth Object Observation Program, with the scientific objective to track the near Earth asteroids larger than one kilometer in size. NASA is not responsible for preventing an asteroid that it tracks from hitting Earth. No agency has that mandate right now.

And the lack of a plan, says Schweickart, is something that causes him to lose sleep.

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