White House Releases National NEO Preparedness Strategy

White House Releases National NEO Preparedness Strategy

The Obama White House today released a National Near Earth Object Preparedness Strategy to improve the country’s preparedness to deal with the potential hazards of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) — asteroids and comets. The report says a companion action plan is forthcoming.

The report was prepared by an interagency working group under the National Science and Technology Council
(NSTC), which is part of the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy (OSTP).   It was co-chaired by OSTP’s Fred Kennedy and NASA’s Lindley Johnson.  Johnson is NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer and in charge of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).  

The Detecting and Mitigating the Impacts of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN) working group included representatives of the White House (OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget); Director of National Intelligence (DNI); NASA; National Science Foundation (NSF); Department of State; DOD (including DARPA and Air Force Strategic Command); Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of the Department of Homeland Security); National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore Lab (both part of the Department of Energy); U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, part of the Department of Interior); Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, part of Department of Transportation); and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), both part of the Department of Commerce.

The meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 offered a stark reminder of what can happen when an asteroid reaches Earth (asteroids are rocks in space; when they enter and descend through Earth’s atmosphere they are meteors; surviving pieces are meteorites).  History is filled with much more dramatic examples, such as the asteroid impact that many believe led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago or the more recent (1908) Tunguska event.  

In the 1990s, Congress directed NASA to locate and track the largest (1 kilometer or more in diameter), and therefore most potentially hazardous, NEOs.  Subsequent congressional direction lowered the threshold to 140 meters or larger.  NASA’s NEO program got a boost after Chelyabinsk and President Obama’s decision to send humans to an asteroid as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. 

NASA’s creation of PDCO and designation of Johnson as Planetary Defense Officer, plus ongoing discussions at the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), are more signals of the increasing seriousness with which NEO impacts are being considered even though they are “low probability, high-consequence” hazards.

The DAMIEN strategy outlines objectives for enhancing U.S. preparedness in hazard and threat assessment, decision-making, and response.  It defines seven strategic goals for federal research, development, deployment, operations, coordination and engagement.  

One of the most critical factors is how long Earthlings would have to prepare for a potential impact — a day, a year, a decade, many decades?  The options for response depend on that timing.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the first of the seven goals is to enhance detection, tracking and characterization capabilities.  The second is to develop methods to deflect or disrupt a NEO’s path. The others are improving modeling, predictions and information integration; developing emergency procedures; establishing impact response and recovery procedures; leveraging and supporting international cooperation; and establishing coordination and communications protocols and thresholds for taking action.

The report promises a forthcoming action plan to implement the strategy and achieve those goals, followed by three-year updates.  It adds, however, that full implementation requires a global network of governments, U.S. government agencies, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including academia, the media, non-profits and industry.  “These partnerships between the United States and the international community, industry and academia will form the backbone of preparations for any threat of a NEO impact event.”

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