Charlene AndersonAug 12, 2009

Are we doing enough to detect and track asteroids?

by Charlene M. Anderson

Back here on Earth, are we doing enough to detect and track asteroids and comets that might even now be on a collision course with our planet? The answer, according to the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, is a resounding "No."

This week, the Committee to Review Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies, National Research Council, released their "Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies: Interim Report." Yes, it's full of scientific and bureaucratic jargon and acronyms, but despite the language, it makes chilling reading.

Consider some of their findings:Finding: Congress has mandated that NASA discover 90 percent 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.

Comment: Typical government action -- set a goal and a deadline, tell NASA to meet them, but don't give them the money to do it. This is the sort of foolishness The Planetary Society has been fighting for nearly 30 years, lobbying Congress, first, to recognize the danger posed by NEOS and, second, to put up the money to do something about it. As you can see, we still have a lot of work to do....Finding: The current near-Earth object surveys cannot meet the goals of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act directing NASA to discover 90 percent of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020.

Comment: The Planetary Society, at least, puts its money where its mouth is. Beginning in 1981, we funded Eleanor Helin's pioneering asteroid discovery program and we continue the work today with our Shoemaker NEO Grant program:
nd we'll keep banging on Congress and the Administration to give NASA the money to do the job.Finding: 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.

Comment: Ah, Arecibo, jewel of modern science. So, what did the National Science Foundation try to do two years ago? Since the giant radio telescope was considered old-fashioned, they decided to cut its funding -- effectively shutting down the only facility on Earth capable of precisely tracking incoming asteroids. Of course The Planetary Society leapt to action, and our members helped reverse that decision. Today, the Arecibo telescope is still following those pesky asteroids -- but we must keep a lookout for other potential treats to this crucial capability.

The NRC document released this week is only an interim report. The full report won't be available until the end of the year. The committee has posed some excruciatingly hard questions still to be addressed:What could we do to ensure that our existing resources for conducting survey programs maximize the warning times for imminent impacts?How do mitigation approaches differ for large versus small impactors and for short versus long warning times?Given experience to date with international collaboration on surveys, how should international collaboration play a role in the future to address NEO issues?

Warning -- how do we give ourselves enough time to respond to an incoming object? Mitigation -- what can we do to ward off catastrophe? And should/will/can the United States tackle the threat alone? We will keep a close watch for this NRC committee's answers to these questions and let you know when the final report appears -- and if there's anything we can do to help make the world safe from threatening asteroids and comets.

Meanwhile, if you want to keep The Planetary Society's NEO program alive and healthy, you can contribute at

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