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Asteroid on the Way? Pray

That's the (rather unscientific) advice to Congress from NASA chief Charles Bolden, who basically says that if a large asteroid heads towards a big US city--as it recently did in Russia--there's not much else we can do. He told them, "From the information we have, we don't know of an asteroid that will threaten the population of the United States. But if it's coming in three weeks, pray."

When an asteroid estimated to be have been about 55 feet in diameter exploded on February 15 over Chelyabinsk, Russia, it generated shock waves that shattered windows and damaged buildings. More than 1,500 people were injured. Later that day, a larger, unrelated asteroid discovered last year passed about 17,200 miles from Earth, closer than the network of television and weather satellites that ring the planet.

The Russian asteroid was the largest object to hit Earth's atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event, when an asteroid or comet exploded over Siberia, leveling 80 million trees over more than 830 square miles.

Texas Republican Lamar Smith says, "We were fortunate that the events of last month were simply an interesting coincidence rather than a catastrophe."

NASA has found and is tracking about 95% of the largest objects flying near Earth, those that are .62 miles or larger in diameter, but only about 10% of an estimated 10,000 potential "city-killer" asteroids, those with a diameter of about 165 feet have been found. On average, objects of that size are estimated to hit Earth about once every 1,000 years.

About 66 million years ago, an object 6 miles in diameter is believed to have smashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, leading to the demise of the dinosaurs, as well as most plant and animal life on Earth.

White House science advisor John Holdren says, "An asteroid of that size, a kilometer or bigger, could plausibly end civilization."

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