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Russian asteroid highlights astronomers' challenge: predicting such space objects

Astronomers have cataloged about 95 percent of the space objects wider than half a mile – those that could destroy civilization. But they have found less than 1 percent of the objects 100 feet across or larger, a class that includes the asteroid that flitted past Earth on Friday.

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The potential isn't lost on the international community at large. A subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is meeting in Vienna through Feb. 22 to tackle several space-related issues, including hazards from comets or asteroids.

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The Scientific and Technical Subcommittee is building a plan to better coordinate searches for near-Earth objects as well as a plan to mount coordinated warnings and responses to objects with Earth in their cross hairs. 

The need for such coordination became apparent in 2008, with the sudden appearance of 2088 TC3, an 80-ton object 5-to-7-feet wide that blew apart with an energy equivalent of 2 kilotons of high explosives in a brilliant fireball. The explosion occurred above a spot roughly 60 miles south of the border between Sudan and Egypt.

The Catalina Sky Survey, a near-Earth-object surveillance effort run by the University of Arizona, spotted the object 20 hours before it entered the atmosphere. Scientists were able to get a good bead on its orbit and track.

NASA alerted the White House, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as issuing a press release. But no one from the United States alerted Sudan because the two countries did not have diplomatic relations, according to an account by Donald Yeomans, who heads NASA's Near Earth Objects Program office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Over the past five years, the US has chalked up some 90 to 95 percent of all near-Earth-object discoveries, notes Tim Spahr, director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Currently, three major observing efforts are under way, with a fourth slated to start using a new space-surveillance telescope the US Air Force has built to track satellites and orbital debris. But virtually all of the major survey projects use telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere.

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