London: NASA is set to play a leading role in protecting the world from the threat of a dangerous asteroid strike, it has emerged.
According to letters sent by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to Congressional committee leaders, the US space agency has been assigned responsibilities that go beyond its 2005 Congressional mandate to detect and track 90 percent of potentially hazardous asteroids with a diameter greater than 140 metres, reports Nature.
To date the agency has found 903 of the estimated 1,050 asteroids with diameters of a kilometre or more passing within about 50 million kilometres of the Earth.
NASA will be mandated to notify other organizations, including the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), if a dangerous asteroid is found, and to drive research and development on the capability needed to deflect the rock.
Former US astronaut Russell ``Rusty`` Schweickart, who has advocated for the United States and other countries to be more active in planetary defence against asteroids, said that NASA`s amplified responsibilities give it a platform for asking Congress for extra funds.
The letters added that NASA would make additional notifications through the US State Department and diplomatic channels to other countries that could be affected, and to the United Nations.
Those notifications would be updated by NASA as more information became available about the threat, up until one day in advance of the projected impact, said Holdren.
Holdren noted in his letters that the President`s budget for the 2011 fiscal year asks for a three-fold increase in funds for near-Earth object detection activities, from 5.8 million dollars to 20.3 million dollars.
It remains to be seen whether next year`s budget request will cater for the agency`s additional responsibilities.
"It`s especially important that those activities discussed by the OSTP be supported by a proposed budget to cover those modest costs required," said Tom Jones, another former astronaut and co-chair of the ad-hoc task force.
"As NASA tests in space the techniques and technologies needed for deflection, the OSTP should re-examine this question and identify the lead agency - or agencies - to actually execute a deflection demonstration," said Jones.