Can NASA, Air Force, private industry really mitigate asteroid threat?

Congressional hearing looks at plans, challenges in discovering Earth threats

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There has been much chatter about the threat of an asteroid or significant meteor strike on Earth in the past few weeks - mostly caused by the untracked meteor that blasted its way to international attention when it exploded in the sky above Russia injuring nearly 1,200 people in February.

It was one of those amazing coincidences that on that same day an asteroid NASA had been tracking for months -- asteroid 2012 DA14 - was to harmlessly cross Earth's path.   

[RELATED: The sizzling world of asteroids]

The events of that day in particular play up the difficulty of tracking such objects.  It also demonstrated the significance or perhaps insignificance of spending tons of money and developing new technologies to tracking such objects.

Those events and the topic of mitigating asteroid and meteor or Near Earth Object threats to Earth prompted a couple congressional hearings by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the latest of which was held this week.

 "Because it was found a year in advance, we were able to accurately predict the close Earth passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 on February 15, and we knew that it would not hit the Earth. However, the small asteroid that impacted the Earth's atmosphere over Russia arrived unannounced because it came from the direction of the Sun, and was hence unobservable with Earth-based telescopes. Discovering and identifying relatively small Earth impactors among the millions of asteroids in the Earth's neighborhood represents a significant challenge. Because there are so many more smaller asteroids than larger ones, the smaller ones hit the Earth's atmosphere more frequently. There are about ten million 20-meter sized asteroids like the one that exploded over central Russia two months ago, and their frequency of collision with the Earth is about once every 100 years, on average," Donald Yeomans, manager of the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

[RELATED: Earth-buzzing asteroid could be worth big bucks: $195B if we could catch it]

Yeomans went on to say that the NASA-supported NEO observations program is proceeding extremely well, and the rate with which NEOs are being discovered and physically characterized is increasing each year.

"[In] 2007, about 80% of the NEOs one kilometer or larger had been discovered and only a few percent of the smaller 140 meter objects. Today, the Spaceguard goal of discovering 90% of the large NEOs has been exceeded and about 25% of the 140 meter or larger sized NEO population has been discovered. Today, the discovery rate of NEOs is about 1000 per year, up 50% since 2007. The Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has 100 million observations of NEOs in its database and 27,000 observations are added daily. Fully 96% of all NEOs were discovered by NASA-funded surveys," he stated.  Still there is still much work to be done. About 50-100 NEOs larger than one kilometer remain undiscovered, along with about 13,000 NEOs larger than 140 meters and millions of objects larger than about 30 meters in extent - the approximate minimum size for a common stony asteroid to cause significant ground damage.

"None of the NEOs found to date have more than a tiny chance of hitting Earth in the next century. Thus the near-term risk of an unwarned impact from large asteroids, and hence the majority of the risk from all NEOs, has been reduced by more than 90%. Assuming none are found to be an impact threat, discovering 90% of the 140 meter sized objects will further reduce the total risk to the 99% level. By finding these objects early enough and tracking their motions over the next 100 years, even those rare objects that might be found threatening could be deflected using existing technologies. For example, a spacecraft could purposely ram the asteroid, modifying its orbital velocity by a very small amount, so that over several years its trajectory would be modified and its predicted impact of Earth in the future avoided by a safe margin," Yeomans said.

[MORE: No bomb powerful enough to destroy an on-rushing asteroid, sorry Bruce Willis]

There are viable options for accelerating the current NEO search efficiencies either using next-generation, ground-based optical surveys or the even more efficient space-based infrared surveys.

Yeomans detailed some future technologies that will help with space objection identification.

  • The existing Pan-STARRS1 (PS1) system operates a 1.8-meter aperture telescope on the island of Maui but this instrument only focuses its attention on NEO observations for about 11% of its observing time because of other science objectives. Even so, PS1 currently provides about 25% of the NEO discoveries, second only to the Catalina Sky Survey. Suitable funding to increase the percentage of time devoted to NEO searches on Pan-STARRS1, at the expense of other science, would accelerate the current NEO discovery rate, as would the full time or part time use of a second Pan-STARRS2 telescope that is nearing completion adjacent to the Pan-STARRS1 facility on Maui.
  • An important planned future contributor is the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), a 3.5-meter wide-field telescope that is being developed by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory for DARPA and the US Air Force. When fully operational in late 2014, this telescope will scan a wide region centered on the equatorial band of the night-time sky. Investigations are ongoing to better understand the efficiency with which this telescope will discover NEOs and what sort of scheduling might be intermingled with its prime mission of manmade space object surveillance to carry out these NEO observations.
  • The most effective, ground-based NEO detection telescope that is currently in planned development is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a 8.4-meter aperture, widefield telescope that is planned to begin operations in Chile in the early 2020s. To be funded by the National Science Foundation and a consortia of private and international agencies and universities for a variety of science programs, simulations have suggested that the shared use of LSST could catalog approximately 25% of the 140 meter sized NEOs within 5 years of operations and about 45% in ten years.
  • Especially for the population of undiscovered sub-kilometer sized objects, space-based infrared telescopes would be a more efficient discovery system than the current ground-based optical surveys. This is because asteroids emit considerable heat, not just reflected sunlight, and this heat makes them bright in the infrared wavelengths, but these wavelengths are also unfortunately heavily filtered by the Earth's atmosphere. In addition, the view from an observatory orbiting the Sun interior to the Earth's orbit would have far better viewing coverage of hazardous objects farther away from Earth.
  • Furthermore, a space-based telescope would not have to deal with downtime due to weather and daylight. Ground-based telescopes have difficulty distinguishing a large, dark asteroid from a small, bright asteroid, often making asteroid size measurements very uncertain. On the other hand, space-based infrared measurements can infer an asteroid's size with an uncertainty of only about 10% and its reflectivity to about 20%.
  • The NASA-funded ground-based ATLAS system currently under development at the University of Hawaii is a relatively low cost, wide-field telescopic survey designed to patrol the entire accessible night sky every night to provide suitable impact warnings for small asteroids on near-term Earth impacting trajectories. Simulations suggest that the ATLAS system, consisting of 3 to 4 sites worldwide, will find almost all objects larger than 30 meters coming at us from the night sky and provide a week's warning time. Current search programs are designed to find larger potentially hazardous objects well in advance of a predicted impact so that existing technologies (e.g., spacecraft rendezvous and impacts) could be employed to deflect the object out of harm's way.
  • A space-based infrared telescope in either a Venus-like orbit or interior to the Earth on the Sun-Earth line would be far more efficient finding NEOs than would existing, or planned, ground-based optical surveys. For the more numerous population of smaller NEOs that can still do significant ground damage, an infrared telescope in that location would be well positioned to find those smaller objects making close Earth approaches. A successful space-based IR survey telescope in a Venus-like orbit would be very effective in discovering NEOs further in advance and providing positional observations unavailable from Earth-based telescopes. Together these observations would allow a faster refinement of an asteroid's orbit so that impact predictions could also be updated more quickly. Hence these space-based observations might provide an early "all clear" and avoid otherwise unnecessary concern and unneeded deflection mission planning or initiation.

Such a telescope is in fact being developed by a privately held group called the B612 Foundation. Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation testified the group is philanthropically funded and in the process of  building what it calls the Sentinel Space Telescope which it intends to launch by 2018.

Lu said the group's  prime contractor is Ball Aerospace, located in Boulder, CO. Ball has previously built the Kepler Space Telescope, and the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope on which Sentinel is largely based. We do have some non-financial support from NASA, which is providing use of the antennas of the Deep Space Network for telemetry and tracking, in addition to some technical consulting.

"Sentinel will orbit the Sun interior to the Earth, in a solar orbit similar to that of the planet Venus. From that vantage point, Sentinel will be able to continuously look outwards away from the Sun while scanning Earth's orbit. This vantage point combined with Sentinel's ability to track asteroids from greater distances, means that Sentinel will typically be able to track an individual asteroid for several months at a time, which allows the orbit of that asteroid to be determined accurately. This is critical because many asteroids will have orbits which at first may appear to pose a threat to Earth until further observations can be used to refine our knowledge of the asteroid orbit well enough to rule out an impact. This is problem for telescopes located on or near Earth, as many asteroids can only be observed for a few weeks and then cannot be observed for long periods of time (often many years) because these asteroids recede in their orbits to the other side of the Sun for extended periods.

Sentinel will orbit the Sun every 8 months, and so it will be able to observed and track these asteroids much more frequently, and therefore will be able to refine the orbits of such asteroids much faster. This will reduce incidences of asteroids having long periods of uncertainty such as we witnessed for the asteroid Apophis from 2004 until about 2010 (when our data was insufficient to be able to rule out an impact with Earth)," Lu stated. 

Yeoman's concluded:  "For the millions of small NEOs, in the range of 30 to 50 meters, it would be extremely challenging to find the majority of this population far enough in advance to first determine which ones represent a threat and then deflect them safely away from Earth. And meeting such a challenge may not be cost effective. It may be sufficient to simply detect these small asteroids a few days or weeks prior to Earth impact so that appropriate warnings could be made and evacuations undertaken similar to hurricane emergencies in the unlikely case where populated areas of Earth would be threatened. A warning of this type would also assure affected nations that the coming explosive blast would be a natural phenomena rather than a hostile act.  One of the issues with which policy makers will need to wrestle is where to draw the line as to the minimum NEO size that represents so large a threat as to require deflection attempts. Objects below that limit would then require only advance warning. Cost benefit studies would shed some light on this issue."

 Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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