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Number of Undetected 'City Killer' Asteroids 'Very Large,' House Panel Told

Bolden said identifying those rocks to be able to track them would require the help of a private contractor. Launching an infrared sensor into Venus' orbit to monitor objects threatening the Earth would cost about three-quarters of a billion dollars.

"Our estimate right now is at the present budget levels… it will be 2030 before we're able to reach the 90 percent level that was prescribed by Congress to detect and characterize those -- 90 percent of the 140 meter class," he said.

"What steps have we taken to bring countries together that could contribute those billions of dollars, as well as our own?" asked Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). "…I would suggest especially including Russia in on this, and they may be able to make some major contributions, save us some money, and actually make a more effective system. And with that said, I'd like to include all countries, except China."

Holdren said "a very powerful laser" could throw an asteroid off orbit, and other approaches "include hitting it with a very heavy impactor."

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) tried to pin the asteroid threat on sequestration, asking witnesses if they felt less prepared to tackle objects hurtling through the atmosphere after the implementation of the Budget Control Act cuts.

"Yes, I am very concerned about the effects on sequestration on all of our ability to do what it is you ask us to do," Bolden responded. "We all know what we're facing today, and we're all sitting here today as the Congress and the administration try to figure out sequestration, something that never should have happened, nobody planned to happen, but we're facing it today."

"Until the recent Russian impact, quite a few people thought those of us who were even aware of this or dare mention it were on the kooky side," said Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.).

"A good segment of the population think it's just a matter of calling Bruce Willis in and, you know, notwithstanding we don't have a shuttle anymore. You know, that's impossible," Posey continued. "What would we do if you detected even a small one, like the one that detonated in Russia, headed for New York City in three weeks? What would we do? Bend over and what?"

"We are where we are today because, you know, you all told us to do something and it -- and between the administration and the Congress, the funding to do that did not -- the bottom line is always the funding did not come. And I don't care whose fault it is or if it's anybody's fault," Bolden said.

"And so the answer to you is if it's coming in three weeks, pray," the NASA chief continued. "…That's not bad policy. I'm a practicing Episcopalian and I love what the pope's doing right now, I'll tell you. Things have happened. You got to pray."