NASA has quite a bit on their plate. Not only have they been tasked with discovering the secrets of the entire universe - the most expansive thing in the entire, well, universe - but it seems we're also relying on them to save us all from a terrible, and statistically inevitable, fiery fate.
NASA's Anti-Asteroid Mission
Back in 2005, NASA was tasked by Congress to detect, catalog and track at least 90 percent of near-Earth objects (NEOs) that were larger than 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter. Basically, someone in Congress had recently watched Armageddon and thought, "Shit, we better actually do something about this".
Too many asteroids, not enough time
NASA was expected to reach this lofty goal by 2020, however in a new report published by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, it looks like it might actually be more effective to place our faith in Bruce Willis to save the world after all.
Sure, don't get me wrong, NASA has found a whole bunch of massive asteroids, but it seems there are a lot, lot, lot, lot more out there. The report states:
While the program has discovered, categorized, and plotted the orbits of more than 11,000 NEOs since 1998, NASA estimates that it has identified only 10 percent of all asteroids 140 meters and larger and will not meet the 2020 deadline...
What's Gone Wrong?
So, why have NASA only found 10 percent of these idly roaming space-death-rocks? Well, there's a combination of factors. The report highlights a lack of coordination, oversight and tracking milestones within NASA, but it also seems to come down to that age old problem: funding and resources. The report continues:
[L]ack of planning and resources has prevented the NEO Program from developing additional agreements that could help achieve program goals.
For example, establishing formal partnerships with the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and international agencies could give the NEO Program access to additional Earth-based telescopes and thereby increase its ability to detect, track, and characterize a greater number of NEOs.
Lack of funding
Now, the NEO Program currently operates on a budget of $40 million. That might seem like a lot to the average joe, but in public funding terms it's the equivalent of trying to battle a tiger with a toothpick. Of this amount only 7% is actually spent on trying to find ways of dealing with the asteroids once we've detected them. An issue, which despite what Armageddon shows us, is not exactly easy to resolve.
The movie Armageddon had a bigger budget
In fact, here's a nice piece of comparison. When adjusted for inflation, the production budget of the movie Armageddon was around $200 million dollars. The actual real life attempt to avert Armageddon only gets less than a quarter of that a year.
A Real-Life Armageddon?
Let's be clear, this stuff is not like some flight of fancy with little tangible impact on the real world. You might remember last year that a 57-foot (18 meter) meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. The force of that explosion was apparently the equivalent of "30 atomic bombs". Luckily, that explosion occurred high enough in the atmosphere to prevent major devastation, however windows were broken and over a 1000 people injured. And that was from a little asteroid!
Our doom is inevitable
So does that mean we're likely to experience a real-life Armageddon some time in the future? Well, theoretically, yes - it's a certainty. Somewhere out there in the vast expanse of space there will be an asteroid with our name on it. However, if NASA can develop this NEO program at least there's a chance we can stop it. If not, well, I guess it's nice to know when your impending doom is due to arrive.
Does this NASA program deserve more money?