NASA Inspector General lobs big rocks at agency’s asteroid hunting program

NASA asteroid tracking systems needs some work

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Credit: NASA

Lack of money, management structure and staff are hampering NASA’s ability to effectively identify and track comets, meteorites and asteroids that might threaten Earth.

The space agency’s Inspector General, Paul Martin, issued a scathing report this week that said while NASA’s Near Earth Object program has done substantial work in identifying the sometimes massive rocks hurtling around the planet it is substantially behind in its goal of cataloging 90% of those 140 meters in diameter by 2020, among other issues.

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On the plus side, NASA estimates that it has identified approximately 10% of all asteroids 140 meters and larger. Moreover, NASA has classified 1,492 NEOs as potentially hazardous objects (PHOs), meaning they have orbits predicted to come within roughly 4.6million miles of Earth’s orbit and exceed about 150 meters (500 feet) in diameter.

In addition, NASA has also surveyed about 95% of the known population of NEOs 1 kilometer or larger and significantly increased efforts to locate and characterize NEOs between140 meters and 1 kilometer. As of July 2014, approximately 11,230 NEOs have been identified of which 862 have diameters of approximately 1 kilometer or larger.

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 But the list of problems is disconcerting. From the NASA IG report:

  • With the directive to identify 90% of NEOs larger than 140meters, substantially increased budget beginning in FY 2011, and additional projects, the NEO Program’s existing structure and resources are not adequate to provide efficient, effective, and transparent program management.
  • In addition to limited personnel, the NEO Program lacks a plan with integrated milestones, defined objectives, and cost and schedule estimates to assist in tracking and attaining Program goals. The program is staffed by 12 personnel who are split between two offices.
  • NASA has organized its NEO Program under a single Program Executive who manages a loosely structured conglomerate of research activities that are not well integrated and lack overarching Program oversight, objectives, and established milestones to track progress.
  • NASA is undertaking NEO-related activities not managed by the Program and not sufficiently integrated into ongoing Program activities.
  • Furthermore, NASA lacks formal agreements or procedures for NEO-related activities it conducts with other Federal agencies and foreign governments and has not taken advantage of possible partnership opportunities. Consequently, managers could not identify the level of resources required to adequately support the Program or explain how activities to which the NEO Program is contributing further Program goals.

Then there’s the money. The IG report said that in FY 2013, the Program Executive oversaw a budget of $20.5million and 64 funding instruments that included grants, purchase orders, and contract task orders to observatories and other facilities. To implement the goals of the 2005 Authorization Act, the Program provided funding to more ground-based observatories and obtained additional observation time at observatories such as the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

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Since 1998, NASA has spent about $100 million in NEO-related efforts using funds from the Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Research Program. Over the past 5years, the annual budget has grown from approximately $4 million in fiscal year (FY) 2009, to $20million in FYs 2011 through 2013, to $40 million in FY 2014, the IG stated.

 Despite this increased activity, NASA has not changed or improved the NEO Program’s management structure and the Program has not established a plan to integrate the additional initiatives or track their contributions to attainment of NEO Program goals, the NASA IG report stated.

 All is not dour though as in response to a draft of this report, the NASA IG stated, the agency’s Associate Administrator “concurred with our recommendations and agreed to establish a formal NEO Program in accordance with NASA guidance. He also stated the Program will conduct a full-time equivalent analysis, develop a plan to establish formal partnerships, and establish a coordination plan between observatories –all of which he promised will be documented in the NEO Program Plan.”

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