DoD vs. Asteroids

Taking their cue from the NBC TV miniseries "Asteroid," reporters yesterday asked Pentagon officials whether the United States could prevent a large asteroid from devastating the planet if it was on a collision course with Earth.

Defense Department Spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters that if an asteroid disaster occurred today, we would be defenseless against it. However, NASA and the Defense Department are learning how to track asteroids so they might at least be able to warn people that one is headed toward them.

Furthermore, Defense Undersecretary Paul Kaminski has set up a working group "to investigate what possible future threats could be from asteroid collisions with the world, and looking at ways to cooperate between the Defense Department and NASA for possibly dealing with these," Bacon said.

Bacon said the working group was not set up in response to the NBC movie, which aired this week. Instead, he said it was a natural outgrowth of the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program (NEAT), a joint project of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Air Force.

The NEAT program, the first U.S. effort to track asteroids that could hit Earth, was established in 1989 and costs the government about $1 million a year to operate. Images from a camera at an observatory in Hawaii are posted on NEAT's Web site.

Kaminski's asteroid working group is set to report in October on what NASA and the military should do if an asteroid is headed our way. Bacon said a major meteor storm, "involving tiny fragments of asteroids and comets," isn't expected until November 1999, and the major concern with that will be damage to satellites and spacecraft.

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