Asteroid-Hunting Telescope Clears NASA Review, But Two-Year Delay Hikes Cost

Asteroid-Hunting Telescope Clears NASA Review, But Two-Year Delay Hikes Cost

A NASA infrared space telescope specifically designed to locate Earth-threatening asteroids and comets cleared a critical review last week and is now an official NASA program. NASA announced today that the Near Earth Object Surveyor is approved to move into Phase C of development, but with a two-year delay from 2026 to 2028 and associated cost increase. Instead of $500-600 million, it is now $1.2 billion not including launch.

Congress directed NASA to identify and catalogue 90 percent of Near Earth Objects — asteroids and comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth — 140 meters or more in diameter within 15 years in the 2005 George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, part of the FY2005 NASA authorization act.

NASA has been working diligently to do that, but finding those small, dark objects in the vastness of space is a difficult task. At a meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee today, Kelly Fast, a program scientist in NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, gave an update on where the search stands now. They are divided into three classes: 1-kilometer or greater, 140-meters to 1-km, or less than 140-meters.

Credit: NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office presentation to NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, December 6, 2022. NEAs – Near Earth Asteroids. PHA – Potentially Hazardous Asteroids. NEC – Near Earth Comets
Credit: NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office presentation to NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, December 6, 2022

As she and others in the planetary defense community point out, at the current rate of discovery it will take another 30 years to fulfill the 2005 congressional requirement.

An impact from a 1-km class NEO would have global consequences, like the one 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs when dust and debris billowed up into the atmosphere, cooling the planet. A 140-meter diameter NEO would have regional consequences. Smaller asteroids often enter the atmosphere usually with no negative effects although the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor was a reminder that sometimes they do.

With NEO Surveyor searching from a vantage point in space instead of with the limited field of view from Earth’s surface they can speed that up to 10 years.

Credit: NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office presentation to NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, December 6, 2022.  PDCO later clarified to that NEO Surveyor entered Phase C on December 1, not November 29 as stated on the chart. NEOWISE is a spacecraft that was repurposed for asteroid hunting after its primary astrophysics mission ended and has been useful in finding asteroids, but NEO Surveyor will be optimized for that task.

NEO Surveyor struggled to win support at NASA, but finally got a green light in 2019 only to have the reins pulled in earlier this year when the Administration’s FY2023 budget request proposed a significant cut and a two-year delay.

Congress is still working on the FY2023 appropriations bill, but the House and Senate Appropriations Committees remain strongly supportive of the project as do NASA’s authorization committees. The recently-enacted 2022 NASA Authorization Act requires NASA to continue development “on a schedule to achieve a launch readiness date not later than March 30, 2026, or the earliest practicable date.”

The congressional push for the NEO Survey originated in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in the 1990s when it was chaired by the late Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-CA), the namesake of that section of the 2005 NASA authorization bill.

Last week, five Republicans on that committee led by Ranking Member Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) wrote to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson urging him to prioritize NEO Surveyor and launch it in 2026 as called for in the 2022 NASA act.

NASA projects go through a series of decision gates to move from one phase of development to another. One of the most critical is Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C where NASA decides whether a project is ready for Phase C, final design and fabrication. If the answer is yes, NASA formally commits to cost and schedule.

NEO Surveyor had its KDP-C review last Tuesday.

Today NASA said yes, it’s ready, but with a June 2028 launch date and a development cost of $1.2 billion. The agency said the “cost and schedule commitments outlined at KDP-C align the NEO Surveyor mission with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the development project’s control.”

Earlier estimates were in the $500-600 million range. NEO Survey Director Amy Mainzer of the University of Arizona told today that the situation changed.

“NASA’s decision to slow down the funding in FY22 and 23 due [to] cost overruns in other missions has resulted in a delayed launch date, which pushes up the cost for NEO Surveyor but has nothing to do with the project itself. It would cost less if we were able to launch sooner.” — Amy Mainzer

After NASA’s announcement, a committee spokesperson for Rep. Lucas reiterated they want NEO Surveyor launched in March 2026 and for NASA to respond to the questions posed in last week’s letter.

“NASA’s decision to postpone the launch of the NEO Surveyor to 2028 is unacceptable. Congress has been explicit that NEO Surveyor must launch by March of 2026. This is, in fact, the only program NASA is obligated to complete by law, so this delay is particularly troubling. NASA has already failed to meet its 2020 deadline to identify 90% of near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters, yet the Biden Administration cut the program funding this year and are now delaying it further – a move which will only add to the total mission cost. This is a high priority issue for the Science Committee, and we expect a response to our recent oversight letter on this topic by Friday.” — Committee spokesperson for Rep. Frank Lucas

The next step is in Congress’s hands. Congress controls the purse strings. NASA and all the other departments and agencies funded by discretionary spending are operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on December 16. When Congress will finalize FY2023 appropriations is very much up in the air, but whatever is provided for NEO Surveyor will determine its pace.

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