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    Asteroid scare prompts NASA to formalize response

    By Robert Roy Britt

    An asteroid flew past Earth last week so close that it nearly entered an orbital halo where weather satellites roam. Scientists spotted it March 15 and watched it zoom by just three days later. It posed no threat, but there are hundreds of thousands more where that one came from.

    And while asteroid 2004 FH, as it is known, was watched calmly by astronomers, a more frightening scenario unfolded two months earlier:

    An unprecedented asteroid scare in January had astronomers worried for a few hours over a rock that had a 1-in-4 chance of hitting Earth during the next few days. At the time, some of the scientists were unsure who should be notified. The event has prompted NASA to set up a formal process for notifying top officials in the future of any impending impacts, has learned.

    The plan, which has existed on an informal basis for months but was not known to all the key scientists involved, could be put out for review this summer and finalized by the end of the year.

    The blueprint will be limited to spelling out lines of communication within NASA, but it might spur other governmental officials to begin considering how to respond to a threat from beyond if NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe were to be informed of one, said Lindley Johnson, the top official for Near Earth Object Observation at NASA Headquarters.