U.S. Government Shutdown | Search for Dangerous Asteroids Continues Despite U.S. Government Shutdown

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SEATTLE — The U.S. government shutdown may have taken NASA’s asteroid-warning Twitter feed offline, but it should not halt the search for potentially hazardous space rocks, scientists say.

NASA announced Sept. 30 that the Near Earth Object Office at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., would not be sending out tweets from its @AsteroidWatch account during the government shutdown, which went into effect Oct. 1.

But efforts to spot asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet — such as the Arizona-based Catalina Sky Survey, which has found the majority of new near-Earth objects for the past several years — should keep working normally for some time to come. 

“The detection stuff is still going on,” said Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., the world clearinghouse for information about newly discovered asteroids and comets.

While most major asteroid-hunting projects in the United States are funded by NASA, they receive the grant money in widely spaced increments and so should not be affected by the shutdown unless it drags on for a considerable period of time, Spahr said.

“Those are typically yearly appointments, so you get your yearly allotment of money, and then you forget about it for a year,” he said.

The situation is similar for many of the scientists who study the images collected by the Catalina Sky Survey, the Pan-STARRS telescope array and other projects. They rely on already-allocated NASA grant money, but they are not federal employees, so they can continue to work through the shutdown.

Most of the NASA workforce, on the other hand, is sitting home. The shutdown — which resulted when Senate Democrats and House Republicans failed to agree on a stopgap spending bill — has forced the agency to furlough all but 550 or so of its 18,000 civil servants.

NASA has also ceased most of its operations, with the exception of efforts required to protect human life and property. The space agency is continuing to support the astronauts aboard the international space station, and it is maintaining currently operating scientific spacecraft.