Killer asteroids getting free pass on NASA's watch

National Academy of Sciences report says NASA hamstrung by lack of funds.

Eros asteroid
NASA seems hamstrung on this one.  Tasked with watching out for huge chunks of space rocks that could smash into the earth, it has been denied the money to actually do the job.

The problem is that while Congress mandated four years ago that NASA detect and track 90% of space rocks known as near earth objects (NEO) 140 kilometer in diameter or larger, it has not authorized any funds to build additional observatories, either in space or on the ground, to help NASA achieve its goals, according to a wide-ranging interim report on the topic released by the National Academy of Sciences this week.    

The report notes that NASA has managed to accomplish some of the killer asteroids mandate with existing telescopes but with over 6,000 known objects and countless others the task is relentless.  NASA does carry out the "Spaceguard Survey" to find NEOs greater than 1 kilometer in diameter, and this program is currently budgeted at $4.1 million per year for FY 2006 through FY 2012.

In addition, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory last month launched the Asteroid Watch Web site to act as a centralized source for information on objects hurtling at Earth.

The National Academy of Sciences report contains five key observations about the task at hand for NASA:

1. Congress has mandated that NASA discover 90% of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020. The administration has not requested and Congress has not appropriated new funds to meet this objective. Only limited facilities are currently involved in this survey/discovery effort, funded by NASA's existing budget.

2. The current near-Earth object surveys cannot meet the goals of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act directing NASA to discover 90% of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020.

3. The orbit-fitting capabilities of the Minor Planet Center are more than capable of handling the observations of the congressionally mandated survey as long as staffing needs are met.

4. The Arecibo Observatory telescope continues to play a unique role in characterization of NEOs, providing unmatched precision and accuracy in orbit determination and insight into size, shape, surface structure, multiplicity, and other physical properties for objects within its declination coverage and detection range.

5. The United States is the only country that currently has an operating survey/detection program for discovering near-Earth objects; Canada and Germany are both building spacecraft that may contribute to the discovery of near-Earth objects. However, neither mission will detect fainter or smaller objects than ground-based telescopes.

The report goes on to state: Imminent impacts (such as those with very short warning times of hours or weeks) may require an improvement in current discovery capabilities. Existing surveys are not designed for this purpose; they are designed to discover more-distant NEOs and to provide years of advance notice for possible impacts. In the past, objects with short warning times have been discovered serendipitously as part of surveys having different objectives. Search strategies for discovering imminent impacts need to be considered, and current surveys may need to be changed.

Although the threat posed to human life by near-Earth objects has received much attention in the media and popular culture, with numerous movies and television documentaries devoted to the subject, to date there has been relatively little effort by the U.S. government to survey, discover, characterize, and mitigate the threat, the report states. 

Requirements have been imposed on NASA in this area without the provision of funds to address them. Despite this problem, the United States is still the most significant actor in this field with few exceptions, if only because other countries have devoted negligible resources to it. If the threat of NEOs and solutions to deal with that threat are to be further explored, additional resources will be required, such as for completion of dedicated telescopes and increased funding for existing key facilities and research and analysis programs, the report concludes.

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