NASA Cannot Meet Congressional Schedule for Finding NEOs Says New NRC Report

NASA Cannot Meet Congressional Schedule for Finding NEOs Says New NRC Report

The National Research Council (NRC) concluded in a report released today that NASA cannot meet the schedule mandated by Congress in 2005 for identifying 90% of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) 140 meters or more in diameter by 2020. NEOs are asteroids or comets that come close to Earth. The NRC said that inadequate funding was the culprit: “…for the past 5 years, the administration requested no funds, and the Congress appropriated none, for this purpose.”

The report, Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies, offers two options for proceeding depending on whether cost or schedule is most important. The earliest the goal could be achieved is 2022 if funding is provided to launch a spacecraft mission to augment searches by ground-based telescopes. If funding is limited and only ground-based telescopes are used, the goal could be reached by 2030. NASA currently spends about $4 million per year looking for NEOs, but that effort is focused on an earlier congressional mandate to catalog larger NEOs — 1 kilometer or more in diameter — that are easier to find.

The NRC committee that wrote the report, chaired by Irwin Shapiro of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, warned that objects smaller than 140 meters also could inflict substantial damage on the Earth and recommended that smaller NEOs also be catalogued. The 1908 event near Tunguska in Siberia that leveled 2,000 square kilometers of forest was cited as an example. Current estimates are that an asteroid between 30 and 70 kilometers in diameter exploded above the site, creating devastation with the resulting atmospheric shock wave.

Radars at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico and NASA’s tracking station in Goldstone, California are needed to characterize NEOs based on their orbits and physical properties, according to the report. Any attempt to deflect one to protect Earth would be dependent upon having such information. Therefore, the committee recommended that funding for NEO studies at Arecibo and Goldstone be assured. Arecibo’s future has been in doubt since a 2006 NSF “senior review” that recommended it be closed by 2011 unless NSF could find other partners to contribute personnel and funds. Some want NASA to be one of those partners and increase its support for Arecibo. NASA argues that ground-based observatories are NSF’s responsibility (NASA funds space-based observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope) and NASA’s budget for space science already is constrained.

The committee was asked to identify the “optimal approach” to defending the Earth from NEO impacts – called “mitigation” in the report – but concluded that efforts in this area are too new and immature to determine an optimal approach. Instead, it recommended a “peer-reviewed, targeted research program in the area of impact hazard and mitigation of NEOs,” stressing that funds for it should not be taken from science programs.

Noting that Congress already directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to identify by October 2010 what U.S. agency or agencies should be responsible for protecting the United States from a NEO collision, the report recommends that a standing committee with members from each relevant agency be created to develop a detailed plan for dealing with the NEO threat. This NEO committee would apportion responsibility among the various U.S. agencies and coordinate and collaborate with other nations. One agency would be designated by the Administration as the lead and chair the NEO committee. The report did not comment on what agency should have that role. In addition, the report recommends that the United States “take the lead in organizing and empowering a suitable international entity to participate in developing a detailed plan for dealing with the NEO hazard.”

The report was written under the auspices of the NRC’s Space Studies Board (SSB) and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB). Congress directed NASA to request the study in the report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008. NASA and NSF jointly sponsored it.

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