Asteroid hunters finally look up

William J. Broad

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 sceptics mocked the worriers as Chicken Littles.

No more. The meteor that rattled Siberia last Friday, injuring hundreds of people and traumatising 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 Friday's shock wave as a turning point in raising more.

"Wouldn't it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren't looking?" said Dr. 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."

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 extra-terrestrial threats. NASA is another, as well as private groups 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," said Dr. James Green, the director of planetary science at NASA headquarters. "No one living on this planet has ever before been hurt. That's historic."

Green added that the Russian episode was sure to energize the field. "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 obvious features like Meteor Crater in Arizona, but wide zones of upheaval. A crater more than a hundred miles wide beneath the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico suggested that, 65 million years ago, a speeding rock from outer space had raised enough planetary mayhem to end the reign of the dinosaurs.

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