White House Specifies Agency Responsibilities for NEO Threats

White House Specifies Agency Responsibilities for NEO Threats

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) sent letters to Congress on October 15 spelling out agency responsibilities in the event a Near Earth Object (NEO) is on a collision course with Earth. NEOs are asteroids or comets on trajectories that come close to Earth.

The letters are in response to a provision in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act. The bottom line is that NASA would notify the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “in the unlikely event of an impending NEO threat.” FEMA would use its existing communications mechanisms to warn state and local officials. The Department of State would notify other countries as needed. NASA would be responsible for notifying FEMA after coordinating with other organizations “within the NEO detection community.” The notification would go to FEMA’s Operations Center, as well as DOD’s Joint Space Operations Center, the State Department, appropriate White House offices, and “other relevant Federal officials and organizations.”

But the letters do not solve the larger question of what agency would be in charge of “mitigating” the threat — deflecting or destroying the NEO. OSTP says only that the government’s “assessment of potential mitigation/deflection options is at an early stage of development and not yet ready for implementation….” A recent National Research Council (NRC) report, which also was requested by Congress, provides “helpful insights” into mitigation options, says OSTP, but more analysis and simulation is needed. NASA is designated by OSTP as the lead agency to conduct that work in coordination with DOD, FEMA and other appropriate agencies.

Those agencies are also directed to “conduct outreach with relevant private sector stakeholders and organizations” as well as other countries and multilateral forums.

OSTP Director John Holdren, who signed the letters, made the concluding point that the approach was subject to further review as more information becomes available that “could lead to different philosophies on agency roles and responsibilities in this arena as we continue to consider the most effective way to address these potential threats. It also would be constructive to explore what resources may be needed to support these assessment activities going forward.””

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