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Meteor strikes on lobbyists' minds

Special interests have prodded U.S. government to fund tracking of killer space rocks

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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. 

AP

Might lobbyists one day save the world from killer space rocks?

Don't count on it. But a few cosmos-minded special interests have spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent years prodding the federal government to better track potentially deadly near-earth asteroids, U.S. Senate records indicate.

Such activity — easily dismissed as the stuff of space nerds and doomsayers — could now accelerate, as a meteor explosion today over central Russia injured hundreds of people and has already reopened debate about government's role in predicting or averting an even greater calamity.

In 2008, the California Space Authority sent a lobbyist to Washington, D.C., in part to promote passage of HR 4917, a bill sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., that would "establish an Office of Potentially Hazardous Near-Earth Object Preparedness" and "prepare the United States for readiness to avoid and to mitigate collisions with potentially hazardous near-Earth objects in collaboration with other agencies through the identification of situation-and-decision-analysis factors and the selection of procedures and systems."

The bill died in committee.

Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. also in 2008 lobbied on a section of HR 6063, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, that directed NASA to continue efforts to "detect, track, catalogue, and characterize near-Earth asteroids and comets in order to provide warning and mitigation of the potential hazard of such near-Earth objects to the Earth," Senate records show.

The bill also "expresses the sense of the Congress that the United States should seek to obtain commitments for cooperation from other nations with significant resources for contributing to a thorough and timely search for such objects and an identification of their characteristics."

NASA for years has engaged in various efforts to track near-earth asteroids and other potentially hazardous space objects, such as a massive rock that's set to pass by Earth about 17,500 miles away today — closer than the orbits of some human-made satellites.

But scientists estimate that they've only identified a small percentage of space rocks that pose a threat to the planet, particularly those less than 50 meters in length but carrying the potential to explode with the force of a nuclear bomb.