CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The sequester showdown in Washington threatens funding for thousands of American programs, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County.
A West Virginia native -- the only physicist in Congress -- wrote a Washington Post commentary saying Russia's chaotic encounter with an exploding meteor shows that America must increase tracking of small space objects, not diminish detection efforts.
Rep. Rush Holt Jr., D-N.J., former assistant director of Princeton University's nuclear fusion laboratory, wrote:
"Every day, about 40 tons of space debris hit the atmosphere, burn and settle to Earth, NASA has found. The vast majority of the detritus consists of meteoroids no larger than a grain of sand, but even tiny specks pack a wallop: A typical meteor hits Earth traveling at least seven miles per second, at least 30 times faster than a bullet shot from a handgun."
Holt recounted that 1,200 Russians were injured by the Feb. 15 meteor, which was around 50 feet thick -- not long before a 150-foot asteroid streaked close to Earth. In 1908, an asteroid estimated at 100 feet knocked down most of a Siberian forest, "releasing about 1,000 times the amount of energy as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima," Holt said in the commentary co-written with Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md.
They appealed for Washington to increase "the investments necessary to track near-Earth objects and prepare for disasters of all kinds."
Meanwhile, Marlinton computer systems executive Agust Gudmundsson, an Iceland native, said West Virginia's Green Bank observatory "is an integral component in our Very Long Baseline Array, a network of telescopes that, among other duties, is tasked with tracking near-Earth asteroids."
If a sizable asteroid -- detected or undetected -- ever hits a populated part of this planet, death and devastation would be horrible. One large enough could spew a globe-circling dust cloud, create a "nuclear winter" and produce mass extinctions. (That's presumably what happened to the dinosaurs.)
Therefore, Congress members deadlocked over the sequester should think twice before slashing support for West Virginia's radio observatory.