Casey DreierJun 27, 2013

We Need Space-Based Detection of Threats, but NASA Shouldn't Pay for It

I made a quick visit to Washington, D.C. this week to cover the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) Science Policy Conference, which aims to get scientists to think about their role in public policy and how they can help influence and serve those who make it.

A session of particular interest focused on low-frequency, high-impact (get it?) events, including asteroid collisions, coronal mass ejections, and tsunamis, i.e. megadisasters. Any of these events could cripple infrastructure and threaten the lives of millions of people.

Eddie Bernard (previously of NOAA) showed how policy changes can lead to direct improvements when dealing with tsunamis. In 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, which improved tsunami detection in the pacific in response to the  devastating Indonesia tsunami two years previous.

Impact on an Ancient earth, by Don Davis
Impact on an Ancient earth, by Don Davis During the first few hundred million years after oceans appeared on the young Earth, life may have repeatedly begun only to be erased in planetwide sterilization events as very large planetoids were colliding with the larger worlds. In time the frequency and sizes of impact events dwindled, allowing stable conditions for life to develop over billions of years.

As a result of this law, the U.S. expanded tsunami monitoring throughout the pacific, developed international cooperative agreements to share this data with Russian tsunami stations, as well as create flood maps of pacific coastal areas, signage directing people how to react to tsunamis, and so forth. It has proved to be extremely effective in providing early warning and clear directions for evacuations out of flood plains in Hawaii after the Japanese tsunami struck in 2011.

Major space threats, like coronal mass ejections and asteroid impacts, need similar monitoring and early warning systems. Right now, NASA kind of provides both: solar monitoring from its Heliophysics program and asteroid detection via a small program within its Planetary Science Division.

However, as a commenter in the audience pointed out, the active solar missions are primarily science-driven and are set to end in the next ten years. Few replacements are coming their way. Asteroid detection funding has improved, but it does seem to be at odds with NASA core mission of exploration, which it has received so little funding for so long. The only proposed space-based asteroid detection telescope is proposed by the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit organization, and crucial follow-up data which determines exact orbits of near-Earth asteroids are supported by our own grant program.

NASA's core mission is (and should remain) that of exploration. Other agencies, like NOAA, are responsible for monitoring weather, and that should include space-based monitoring of solar weather threats. Maybe the USGS should be responsible for NEO detection, and NASA (or private industry) can act as the contractor for space-based detection systems. This would be similar to how it works with NOAA to provide weather satellites, though obvious improvements are needed in how that relationship functions. Well crafted policy and careful implementation would be crucial.

Of course, this all comes down to the money needed to support an expanded space-based early warning system for major threats. We've seen that effective systems are possible with tsunamis, but difficult to get Congress to pay for unless a disaster strikes first. Space based threats are bigger, less likely to occur, and more expensive to maintain, a bad place to start from when trying to create solutions.

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