Amateur astronomers could receive awards of $3,000 for discovering and tracking near-Earth asteroids (search) under legislation approved by the House Wednesday.

"Given the vast number of asteroids and comets that inhabits Earth's neighborhood, greater efforts for tracking and monitoring these objects are critical," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., sponsor of the legislation that passed 404-1.

Astronomers estimate there are between 900 and 1,100 near-Earth asteroids with a diameter of at least one kilometer — about six-tenths of a mile — or larger. Of those, nearly 700 already have been discovered and cataloged.

Asteroids capable of inflicting damage on a global scale hit the Earth roughly every million years. An asteroid is believed responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The bill, which still needs Senate action, directs the NASA (search) administrator to make the awards, based on recommendations by the Smithsonian Minor Planet Center (search).

One award is to be issued annually to the amateur astronomer or group of amateurs who in the previous year discovered the intrinsically brightest, near-Earth asteroid. Another award would go to the amateur who makes the greatest contribution to the Minor Planet Center's mission of cataloguing near-Earth asteroids.

The bill is named after Pete Conrad (search), the third man to walk on the moon. The lone dissenting vote was Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.