NASA and Space Force to Work Together on Planetary Defense

NASA and Space Force to Work Together on Planetary Defense

NASA and the new U.S. Space Force (USSF) will work together in finding and tracking Near Earth Objects (NEOs) — asteroids and comets — that may threaten Earth.  NASA is under congressional direction to find 90 percent of Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs) and is also working on methods to defend the planet from them if needed.

Congress first directed NASA in 1998 to find and track 90 percent of NEOs 1 kilometer or more in diameter within 10 years. A collision with a NEO that size would cause a planet-wide catastrophe.  NASA was able to meet that goal and concluded none are likely to impact Earth.  In 2005 Congress mandated the agency to find 90 percent of those 140 meters or more in diameter within 15 years.  A NEO that size could cause regional devastation.  It is much more difficult to find the smaller NEOs.  The deadline is this year and NASA has found only 40 percent of the estimated population.  Many are convinced that a dedicated space-based infrared telescope, NEOSM, is needed, but ground-based telescopes are the only ones available now.

Meanwhile, the USSF, created in December as a sixth military service as part of the Air Force, is now in charge of tracking and cataloging satellites and pieces of debris orbiting Earth to provide space situational awareness — knowing where those objects are and calculating whether they might collide with each other. It reportedly is planning to expand those capabilities to track objects further into “cislunar space,” the area between the Earth and the Moon.

In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed today that NASA and the USSF will work together on tracking NEOs like Apophis, which will come very close to the Earth in 2029.

During a webinar with Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies later in the day, he went on to say USSF’s cislunar capabilities will help NASA’s efforts.

What the Space Force brings to NASA in this endeavor are capabilities for cislunar space, space situational awareness that we can then use to help inform our models.  And so, just because they’re doing … cislunar space situational awareness, doesn’t mean that those capabilities can’t see a lot further and help us as we create the catalog that Congress has required us to create.” — Jim Bridenstine

A NASA spokesperson told via email that NASA incorporated an asteroid detection and tracking algorithm into the image processing capabilities of the Space Force’s Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) during testing in New Mexico. The SST is being  deployed to western Australia and the tests will resume there later this year.  In addition, other Space Force sensors detect natural objects entering Earth’s atmosphere.  Those larger than 1 meter are categorized as possible asteroids and entered into NASA’s database of “fireballs” or bolides.

Bridenstine went on to say that the planetary defense portion of NASA “does not get nearly the attention that it should.”  NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO is part of NASA’s planetary science division.  In addition to identifying and tracking asteroids, it is developing a technology demonstration mission to test a method to deflect an asteroid that might be headed to Earth. The Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) consumes more than half PDCO’s $150 million annual budget and as its budget requirements ramp down, NEOSM is waiting.  Nonetheless, NASA’s FY2021 budget request shows funding for the office declining to about $100 million in the future.


Note: This article was updated May 6 with the response from the NASA spokesperson.


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