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"There are potentially about 1 million smaller, threatening asteroids out there and we don't know where they are," Jason Kessler, who oversees NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge Program, said at a webcast Space Frontier Foundation conference in San Jose, Calif., this week.
"We have the ability to truly change our fate. There are not many things that we can actually say that about," Kessler added.
About one-third of the proposals NASA received are focused on finding potentially dangerous asteroids. The rest address a related NASA initiative to send a robotic probe to capture and relocate a small asteroid into an orbit around the moon. U.S. astronauts would then visit the asteroid on a follow-on mission.
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"Those responses are amazing," said NASA's associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. "There are some really creative thoughts."
Congress has not yet decided whether to fund the Obama Administration's request for $105 million for NASA to get started on the asteroid rendezvous mission. The project is part of the agency's $17.7 billion budget request for the 2014 fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1. Proposed House and Senate funding bills are more than $1 billion apart.