NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on 'Threats from Space: A Review of US Government Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors' on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 19, 2013. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr. told a House Committee hearing Tuesday that if they discovered a meteor zooming toward an American city, the only thing people can really do is "pray."
Of course, there are qualifiers to the statement. The United States already has the capability to detect the larger asteroids that could devastate entire nations, but for the smaller ones -- and Russia's recent scrape with the extraterrestrial was considered "small" -- we're essentially sitting ducks.
Donald Yeomans, Manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, further warned CBS News: "In Russia, if that asteroid had held intact for a few more seconds, it would have hit the ground with the force of 20 Hiroshima bombs."
He argued that investing in a space-based infrared telescope at the cost of only a "few" hundred million dollars is well worth it if it means avoiding such events in the future.
In this frame grab made from a video done with a dashboard camera a meteor streaks through the sky over Chelyabinsk, about 1500 kilometers (930 miles) east of Moscow, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (Photo: AP)
Today, we'd be lucky to have about three weeks notice before such an impact. Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, reportedly admitted Tuesday that the United States was completely unaware the Russian meteor was coming.
"The odds of a near-Earth object strike causing massive casualties and destruction of infrastructure are very small," senior adviser to President Obama on science and technology issues John Holdren reassured Congress Tuesday. "But the potential consequences of such an event are so large that it makes sense to take the risk seriously."
As far as the larger, civilization-affecting blasts, there's no need to give up hope just yet:
"An object larger than one kilometer, which would cause a global problem -- we've found 95 percent of them already and none of them represent a problem in the next 100 years," said Yeomans. A hit from such an asteroid would be the equivalent of thousands of nuclear bombs going off, he said. "Civilization would survive probably, but not in the form that we know it."
If such an object is discovered to be approaching Earth, the leading contender to address the problem would be to crash a spacecraft into it in order to slow it down and alter its course. "If you find it early enough, and you smack it early enough, you've got enough time," said Yeomans... Still, for a large object, you'd need billions of dollars and, Yeomans estimates, at least a 10-year head start. [Emphasis added]
CBS News' Norah O'Donnell expressed skepticism at the seemingly dire requests for hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.
"The asteroids will never be safe now that lobbyists have their sights on them," she said cynically.