The first in-space test of asteroid deflection technology, DART, launches this month. Lindley Johnson, NASA's planetary defense coordination officer, joins the show to talk about how this mission represents a new era for the agency's Planetary Defense program, and how it took nearly 25 years to convince policymakers, international partners, and even NASA that asteroid detection and deflection is an important use of taxpayer dollars. Casey and Mat also highlight the new Astrophysics decadal survey report and the federal ruling against Blue Origin in its effort to secure funding for its lunar lander.
Related Reading and References
- DART, NASA's test to stop an asteroid from hitting Earth
- Why an asteroid strike is like a pandemic
- How NASA's planetary defense budget grew by more than 4000% in 10 years
- Federal court rules against Blue Origin in HLS lawsuit
- Hunt for alien life tops next-gen wish list for U.S. astronomy
- May 26, 2021 Planetary Radio: The New Great Space Observatories
Mat Kaplan: Welcome, everyone to the November Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. We are very happy to have you on board again and we have a terrific conversation to share with you. One that my colleague, Casey Dreier, our senior space policy advisor at The Planetary Society, also, a chief advocate has had with someone who has been kind of a regular on Planetary Radio. First though, Casey, welcome back.
Casey Dreier: Thanks, Mat. I assume you're referring to Lindley Johnson, the impactful discussion that we had about the upcoming, for us, as we record this, launch of DART, which will be the first in-space test of asteroid deflection technology. I think there's a really wonderful and interesting story there about how we are maturing this whole area of Planetary Defense from ground based observations now to in space demonstrations and going forward into a permanent flight program for missions that aren't primarily about science or human space light, but primarily about defending the earth from large impacts.
Casey Dreier: So the, this program has just changed enormously over the last 20 years. And Lindley has been there pretty much every step of the way on the NASA side. We walk through how that has changed, why it changed and then what to expect going forward.
Mat Kaplan: It's a terrific conversation as usual. I have been able to go through it, and so I highly recommend sticking around for this. It definitely covers some ground that we have not covered with Lindley before on Planetary Radio. Here is a program note. I expect that in the weekly Planetary Radio, we're going to welcome back Nancy Chabot and possibly some other people who are directly involved with the DART mission. Nancy of course is the coordination lead at the Applied Physics Lab, which is the lead agency for development of DART. I'm looking forward to welcoming her back for the beginning of this very, very important mission, for those of us who deeply care about Planetary Defense.
Mat Kaplan: We know that that includes a lot of you out there, especially those of you who are already members of The Planetary Society. And if you're not a member of The Planetary Society, well, we hope that you'll visit planetary.org/join and get behind the Planetary Defense advocacy and all of the other great work that is led by Casey and the rest of us are also so in involved with at the society. All the other great work that we are doing, it all happens thanks to our members.
Mat Kaplan: So thank you if you're already a member and thank you if you're about to go there and please consider becoming one of the people who makes everything we do possible. And a great example of this advocacy work that we have underway happens annually. Casey, you want to say something about the day of action?
Casey Dreier: Absolutely, Mat. We now are open for the 2022 day of action. That's our in-person visits with members of Congress here in the United States and for people who live in the United States to go advocate for space. We provide you training. We provide you talking points. And then you do the meetings yourself with their staff, with them in person and with other planetary society members. It's a really great, really important thing you can do. It does make a real difference. There's data behind it. We can always go into. I will just take my word for today.
Casey Dreier: However, also, because we're still in COVID and we have an unpredictable access to congressional offices in the nation's capital, it will be a virtual day of action this year. So as a consequence, we've lowered our registration prices and you can still participate from wherever you are within United States. That's planetary.org/dayofaction. If you want to find out more ways to register and to learn more about the event itself, ticketing will be open from now up until the end of February. So you will hear more about it from me.
Mat Kaplan: Another thing that I can highly recommend having also been within the halls of Congress, so up there on Capitol Hill, it's a democracy affirming thing to do, but it's also a self-affirming thing to do. People feel empowered when they do this. I know you've talked to many of the folks who participated in past days of action and that's exactly what they express.
Casey Dreier: That's true. Both of those are just really good points to emphasize. You will come out of this with something, and almost for sure, a positive experience. For those of you who may have a, let's say less than stellar opinion of our democracy right now, it's a good way to reinforce some of the basics of it. It really is. It really does work and people do want to hear what their constituents have to think about issues like space.
Casey Dreier: We get the advantage that it's a wonderful issue to talk about. It's really positive forward looking optimistic, nonpartisan. It's a great experience. So yeah, please consider checking us out. Again, that's planetary.org/dayofaction.
Mat Kaplan: As you and I speak, Casey, I mean, we're doing this the day before the show is published, it has been a big day of space news. Maybe most prominently is the much anticipated release by the National Academy of Science, actually Science, Engineering, and Medicine, NASEM of the decadal survey. The latest decadal survey on astronomy, astrophysics. Just happened this morning. There's already been a briefing about this. But I know this is something you've been looking forward to and you've already been studying the conclusions.
Casey Dreier: Yes, I've been doing what I can to read through. It's like a 680 page report. I've had one and a half hours to do it so far, so not quite there. So we will devote a full episode next month to this decadal survey report. These are big deals, right? This will set the next 10 years of priorities for NASA's astrophysics program. This the program that makes the James Webb Space Telescope, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, that supports Hubble, that builds these new generations of investments in deep space observations.
Casey Dreier: Also, helps to set the direction of ground based observing and a variety of other issues, this is a big deal. Again, through the national academies, very highly respected, very influential, right? If you need proof of that, we are finishing in about to launch James Webb, which was the top recommendation from the 2000 decadal survey. We're in the midst of building the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope, WFIRST, which was the top recommendation of the 2010 decadal survey.
Casey Dreier: So even at the timeline slip, the priorities tend to be very sticky and important. So again, we will really dive into it next month. Right now, I think just from the cursory look, we can just summarize a few things really quickly. It really recommends, and almost kind of acknowledges that building these space telescopes as we've seen now, particularly with James Webb, take more than a 10-year timeframe.
Casey Dreier: These are big ambitious, highly complex and expensive missions. These differ fundamentally from planetary science missions in the sense that building a telescope is a multi-user platform, right? You are a sense building sensitivity to various wavelengths of photons coming in from the cosmos that can be used and studied by all sorts of different disciplines in astronomy. Planetary missions tend to be hyper focused into various particular aspects of planetary science and tend not to be as broad of a platform for the scientific community.
Casey Dreier: This is why you tend to see more planetary missions that tend to be less expensive than astrophysics missions, which tend to be big hoking beasts that then last for decades and can continue to return astonishing science, just like the Hubble. So this report really, I think, embraces that aspect and just kind of understands that the next generation post WFIRST, post Roman Space Telescope has to be something they approach strategically.
Casey Dreier: It's somewhat fascinating, again, from the initial look at this. Their top priority in a sense is not any particular mission, but putting in really strong technological investment now in the next 10 years to then make a decision to pursue this next generation what they would consider a habitable planet finding... Or not finding, a habitable planet imaging space telescope. On the order of six meters. This is roughly the size of James Webb, but really tuned to image exoplanets and really tuned to search for life with those.
Casey Dreier: You're seeing in a sense, the astonishing rise of exoplanetary research. And again, habitability in the search for life is becoming this dominant motivator in astrophysics. Other recommendations include doing technology development for what they would call great observatories in various X-ray and other wavelengths as well to compliment this kind of activity.
Casey Dreier: Again, this is a big report with a ton of additional data and analysis and recommendations. But what really, again, strikes me, and this is what the planetary society, we submitted feedback into this process a few years ago, generally what we recommended, which was go big and don't be shy about saying, "This is what we need to do to address some of these major questions, perhaps the biggest question of are we alone? So it's a fascinating report. Just dropped a couple hours ago. We will discuss it in depth.
Mat Kaplan: Got one little clip from today's briefing that I'm going to play for you. It's Fiona Harrison, who is at Caltech, astrophysicist there. In charge of an x-ray telescope that's been serving up in the sky for a long time, but is a co-chair of this latest decadal survey, astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. She acknowledged during the briefing at the beginning of the briefing, the involvement by hundreds of organizations and individuals who submitted papers. Anyway, here is Fiona with just a quick statement about the role those played.
Fiona Harrison: There were more than 860 white papers from the community submitted to the survey and they were all read. So this really represents the tremendous interest and engagement of the entire astronomical community.
Mat Kaplan: Amazing. Over 800 submissions among those the one from the planetary society. Some of you out there may remember that last May, we had a conversation on the weekly Planetary Radio with Grant Tremblay at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I talked with Grant about this umbrella organization that had brought together four of the major great observatory proposals. And in fact, two of those have sort of been combined in a mashup, LOUVOIR which looks like a grand version of JWST and HabEx, habitable exoplanets is what that stands for. They're now calling the mission that the decadal survey is called for, Casey. It's that mashup name as well, I guess it would be LuEx, which is that combination of LOUVOIR and HabEx.
Mat Kaplan: And the other two telescopes, an x-ray telescope called Lynx and one called Origins, which is more of an infrared scope, if I remember correctly were also addressed in this decadal survey as maybe something projects to be taken on perhaps five years after this grand telescope called at least affectionately at the moment, LuvEx. Do you think I have that right?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. And just to emphasize that the LuvEx concept at earliest launch in the early 2040s. And they really recommend putting in about $800 million of investment over the next 10 years of basic tech study analysis, scientific work theory to fully understand if this is the right. If it's possible and how to do it without getting budget overruns, like you had with the James Webb Space Telescope, where you don't want to do your big technology development while you're building the rest of the spacecraft.
Casey Dreier: That's how you get these really expensive overruns when something goes wrong. So it's a very practical and pragmatic approach. They also of course recommend doing the technology development for the other two missions, which are listed as second, but co-equal in priority after the LuvEx concept. And they even emphasized LUVOIR and HabEx, the original concept.
Casey Dreier: I think the original LUVOIR concept was priced out at an estimate $17 billion, which they felt was just too much to handle and would take too long to pursue. And HabEx was maybe finally tuned toward one question. And this merging of the two concepts not only gives you an opportunity to really look at the traces for biosignatures on exoplanets, it also provides an opportunity for other areas of astronomy to find potentially transformative science themselves.
Casey Dreier: So it's this all around mission concept is what they're recommending, but again, launching in the 2040s. So 20 years from now, right? So good reminder in space. Be patient, eat your vegetables, make sure you get your exercise every day so we can all be there to see this transformative science when it happens. But again, this is roughly the timescale of the James Webb Space Telescope, right?
Casey Dreier: So in a way I'm really glad they didn't shy away from bold spacecraft after some debacle with James Webb. And again, we still haven't seen the success of James Webb as this is released. We're hoping it works. They're acknowledging the consequences of it, and they are... A smart path forward, I think is very reasonable path to get you to a very large transformative space telescope doing the work now, and also just acknowledging the rest of this decade is really going to be taken up focused on finishing the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.
Mat Kaplan: Just another word or two. There were many other recommendations made in this new decadal survey. A lot of them having to do was support for the community of astronomers and astrophysicists, increasing diversity, offering opportunities to young researchers. I mean, this was also, I'm sure, very welcome, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Absolutely, right. I mean, you can have the most spectacular bespoke space telescope ever made, but it doesn't mean anything unless you have the best minds scientists from a wide range of backgrounds working on the data. You don't have science without scientists. Yes, I will be reading through very closely, but it did discuss highlight, some of the work that they did on the health of their profession from a variety of perspectives. And that's very, very important work and something you just need to put funding into.
Casey Dreier: They recommend increases in funding for career grants and early career resources and bringing new types of people into the field. These are what you have to do, right? You can look at the data. People don't get cheaper over time, right? The highly trained people cost money, right? To cost of living just their salaries, paying healthcare, basic benefits. What we expect for highly talented people that never goes down and actually tends to cost more and more rates that increase higher than the standard rate of inflation.
Casey Dreier: If you get more people participating in any science, you need to commensurately increase the amount of grant money that you're providing to support that community. And if you don't, there just will be too many people competing for too little, which again, wastes a lot of people's time where they could be working on science. They're competing on scraps for grants. So this was very good perspective to have, and again, we will dive into the details of this next month.
Mat Kaplan: I'm going to give the last word on this topic to our own Heidi Hammel. I say our own because she is vice president of The Planetary Society, but also vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, AURA. Here's what Heidi was quoted as saying in scientific American, just this morning, "We stand at the threshold of a new golden age of discovery. Might we actually find evidence for life on another planet? This report two to its name lays out robust pathways to answer this question and we can be the generation that answers it."
Mat Kaplan: Nicely done, Heidi. There is at least one other story, which just came out this morning and I suppose it's bad news for Blue Origin, but maybe good news for people who want to see NASA put humans back on the moon. Casey?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. This seems much more down to earth after that kind of cosmic perspective from Heidi earthy, but also feeds into, I suppose, a forward looking thing for the moon. Yes. So Blue Origins, basically they're a last attempt to gain access to NASA funding now to develop a lunar lander by suing NASA, after they lost their appeal to the Government Accountability Office for the contract award. They were rejected by a federal judge today.
Casey Dreier: That means NASA's able to move forward, a continuing to award contract money to SpaceX, to develop Starship for its human landing system and Blue Origin. And Jeff Bezos actually said after the ruling today, basically that they no longer plan to contest this award legally. So they won't appeal this decision. They will move on. NASA has provided initial funding and pathways for the second phase of this contract, which would be ongoing lunar delivery services.
Casey Dreier: So not development contract, but a services contract. That means Blue Origin could continue to fund its program internally and apply for ongoing services without NASA money. Again, there's always a potential legislative outcome that would mandate NASA to have a second contract provider for lunar landing services. Congress could appropriate more money for this program and Blue Origin could stand to benefit in the future, but that's at this point many months away and uncertain at best given our current political situation.
Casey Dreier: SpaceX now is to start receiving more NASA funds. NASA can start working with SpaceX in earnest. This has all been put on pause while this litigation was happening. And I'm just eager to see us start really making serious steps towards creating new lunar landers for the first time in 50 years.
Mat Kaplan: All right. With those reports out of the way, let's get to this great conversation that Casey had just within the last few hours with Lindley Johnson, the guy with one of the greatest job titles in the world, the Planetary Defense officer at NASA, I think only equal by the planetary protection officer. Casey, you want to introduce this?
Casey Dreier: Lindley has been at NASA for over 20 years now, has been part of the near earth object observations and now Planetary Defense programs, pretty much since their beginning. He has really seen this program grow and evolve. And again, as I say in the discussion really mature into not just ground based observations, but now flight programs, sending spacecraft to places in the name of Planetary Defense. We mentioned something within the UN called COPUOS later in the discussion. COPUOS is a shorthand for the committee on the peaceful uses of outer space.
Casey Dreier: It's a UN committee that helps to find a lot of space policy or recommendations to the United Nations in general. So when you hear COPUOS, just a UN committee on this stuff is actually created not long after Sputnik was launched.
Mat Kaplan: COPUOS is a NASA worthy acronym that didn't come from NASA this time, it came out of the United Nations. All right, with that, let's get to this great conversation with Lindley Johnson that Casey had just a couple of days before this Space Policy Edition is made available.
Casey Dreier: Lindley Johnson, welcome to the Space Policy Edition. Happy you're here.
Lindley Johnson: Glad to be here, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Before we go into the history of Planetary Defense and what you do with it, let's first talk about DART. This mission that's coming up this fall. In my opinion, maybe more important in some ways than the James Webb Space Telescope, which is going to be dominating everyone's attention with NASA coming up in December, but DART is launching ideally at the end of November. I believe you said it launches the evening of November 23rd double asteroid redirection test. Why is this project a big deal for you?
Lindley Johnson: Well, the double asteroid redirection test is our first test of a technique that could be used to deflect an asteroid in its orbit about the sun that may be of a hazard to the Earth. It is the first demonstration that mankind, humankind I should say can protect its self from a future asteroid impact. So that's what makes it such a big deal. It's first time in history that we've tried to do this and change the course of not only human history, but also the future history of the Earth.
Casey Dreier: Right. And that's really what it comes down to, I think. So this is a modest or maybe even relatively small mission in terms of overall resources, right? It's in the scale off the top of my head of 300-ish million?
Lindley Johnson: That's correct. It is in order of planetary missions, pretty small scale. In fact, it was started just as a technology demonstration mission, but the importance of it increased the awareness and the attention that it deserved. So yes, we're at about $330 million lifecycle costs. That's from when we started the official mission planning through our expected end of mission activities that don't occur until the end of 2023.
Casey Dreier: So just a fantastic deal. And again, this is why I feel it's this... Neglected is too strong of word, but perhaps overshadowed by this other big mission that's happening to emphasize, right? We've seen this in movies and I wonder if a lot of people who just casually follow Planetary Defense or just vaguely aware of near-Earth objects, just assume we've tried to do something like this before, right? This is the first time we're actively trying to change the orbit of a celestial body. I guess you can say deep impact was something we smashed something into an asteroid.
Lindley Johnson: Well, we made our mark. We made our mark on a comment back in 2005 with the deep impact mission, but didn't do anything near trying to change its course and space. In fact, we deliberately didn't want to do that with our comment to Tempel 1. We just wanted to dig out some of the material to get a look at what comments are made of. So that was purely a scientific mission. This mission DART is to actually try to change the course of an asteroid in space. In this case, the moon, a relatively small moon of the asteroid Didymos is called Dimorphos. But still Dimorphos is the size of about, well, a small football stadium. It's 160 meters in length, large high school or small college football stadium is about that size.
Casey Dreier: And those are exactly the type of asteroids that congress has mandated NASA to find, right? The 100 meter and larger diameters.
Lindley Johnson: Right. That threshold is kind of set that at the size of which if we were to be impacted by an asteroid that size, it would have more than just local damage. It could have a regional statewide damage, be a disaster that would be a real challenge to recover from because of the size and the extent of the disaster area. So this demonstrates that we can, first of all, hit an asteroid that small out in this case, almost 7 million miles in space and affect that change.
Casey Dreier: This is something I'm going to be comparing a lot during our discussion today, which obviously COVID is on a lot of our minds. Anyone who's been alive in the last two years. This analogy I'm going to be making, DART to me almost seems like early vaccine trials or something like that, kind of early version of what ultimately is the equivalent of a vaccine from asteroid impacts protecting humanity.
Lindley Johnson: I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think that is a good analogy is that we are testing the cure or the prevention, I should say. The prevention of a future asteroid impact. So equivalent to a medical vaccine in a lot of ways. So I think that is a good analogy.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. I made a big argument in Scientific American a few months ago, comparing COVID preparedness to asteroid preparedness, which I'll keep bringing up in this discussion, but I want to step back one extra step here talking about DART and why it's important, because as you said, this is the first Planetary Defense mission. This is the first four-year program that you help manage at NASA, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. This is a huge step up in terms of responsibilities for this program, right? This is new for you to be managing a spacecraft project.
Lindley Johnson: Well, it's correct for this program to be of managing a spacecraft project from beginning to end. I would point out that it's not the first mission spacecraft that is under the management of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. That mission is NEO wise.
Casey Dreier: Sorry, yeah.
Lindley Johnson: Which is a repurposing of an astrophysics space telescope, but we weren't in charge of the design of that or anything like it. Seeing it all the way through development. It is true that DART is the first flight mission to come as part of the Planetary Defense program.
Casey Dreier: Talk us through a little bit about how that happened. What was the key point in getting DART funded and built? This only really kicked off as a program, I believe in 2017, if I'm remembering correctly?
Lindley Johnson: Officially in 2017, yes. Well, the concept of DART goes back a long ways, if you just talk about the technique of using a kinetic impactor to slam into an asteroid and change its velocity in space, which in turn will change its orbital path goes back decades. But as far as NASA undertaking this mission that started about 11, 12 years ago in actually discussions about a collaborative mission with the European Space Agency.
Lindley Johnson: I hit upon the idea. In fact, one of the project scientists, Andy Chang can be credited with developing this idea instead of trying to redirect a lone asteroid in orbit about the sun, if we did this test on the moon of a binary asteroid, then the effects could be detected a lot sooner and with earth based telescopes, you wouldn't need as big a spacecraft first of all. And the effects on the orbit would be a lot more obvious because of the relative velocity change.
Lindley Johnson: The moon of Dimorphos, its velocity and space is on the order of something like seven inches a second, or maybe it's seven centimeters a second. So that's relatively slow compared to the orbital velocity around the sun. So hitting it with the spacecraft, it would have more of effect on its orbit than using the same spacecraft, just to hit the same size asteroid in a lone orbit about the sun.
Lindley Johnson: So that all was conceived about a decade ago. Then it took a few years for the idea to take hold. Then parallel to that was the whole Planetary Defense program at NASA obtaining the higher visibility and approval for it to be a part of the Planetary Science Portfolio with the establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office in January of 2016, and then are being able to submit our own budget line into the whole budget process, allowed us to establish the funding line for a flight project like DART.
Lindley Johnson: DART, also from the aspect that it was a relatively economic mission compared to some of the other planetary science missions also allowed it to be an early mission of our program as our budget was building up. The other is the natural opportunity that Didymos provided us with this relatively close pass by the Earth in the fall of 2022. This is all going to be easily visible by Earth based observatories. It was also a driving factor in getting it approved when we did.
Casey Dreier: Does that help push it over the edge when you're making your argument that, "Look, we have a physical time constraint"? And also how much did the international contribution or support from ISA, even though that's changed over the years, are those two key things that you were able to leverage into making the case why NASA should invest in a Planetary Defense mission versus something like NEO Surveyor which has been continually talked about, but only until very recently has been pursued seriously.
Lindley Johnson: Yeah. Well, those were certainly factors that were involved in the decision that the opportunity that Didymos provided us here in the population of binary asteroids that we know about. There is not another near term opportunity like this. The next opportunity to do something like this and looking at it is probably again Didymos itself, but not until like the 2060s.
Lindley Johnson: That certainly helped push the case, the fact that other space agencies and particularly European space agency were interested in supporting this type of mission. In this case, originally they were going to have a mission that would have a spacecraft at Didymos when DART did the impact, but because of their programmatic hurdles on their side, it took a few more years to get that mission approved, which is now called HERA, and it will launch in 2024 and arrive at Didymos in 2026, about four years after DART has impacted. But it's going to be provide a much more detailed post-impact assessment of Didymos and we're going to have a more precise measurement of the masses of both Didymos and most importantly, the moon Dimorphos to then put into our modeling.
Lindley Johnson: We're able to achieve all the level one objectives of DART with what is in the DART project itself, the flight project and the very important observation campaign that goes on through 2020 and '23 to fully characterize the system prior to the impact and then post-impact assessment. How much have we changed the orbital period of Dimorphos.
Casey Dreier: Much more of Casey's conversation with Lindley Johnson is just 30 seconds away.
Sarah: From missions arriving at Mars to new frontiers in human space flight, 2021 has been an exciting year for space science and exploration. Hi, I'm Sarah, digital community manager for The Planetary Society. What were your favorite moments? You can cast your vote right now at planetary.org/bestof2021 and help choose the year's best space images, mission milestones, memes, and more. That's planetary.org/best of 2021. Thanks.
Casey Dreier: You said something in passing that really interested me, which was this idea that the Planetary Defense, once it got promoted to a program within the planetary science division at NASA, that you were able to submit budget requests like advocate in a sense for your own resources once you were at that certain bureaucratic level of kind of integration within the rest of NASA.
Casey Dreier: This is something that's been really fascinating me because I wanted to put this in broader context. You have been working on NEOs and Planetary Defense topics with NASA roughly 15 years. Is that about right? Or is it 20 years, closer to 20 years at this point?
Lindley Johnson: It's closer to 20 years. I came to NASA in 23. I took over the NEO program, NEO observations program at that time. So it's 28 to 28 years now. A little over 28 years now. But I actually became involved with this mission area, this idea just right about 30 years ago in the early '90s and was an advocate for what has become known as Planetary Defense while I was still in the Air Force for the last 10, 12 years of my air force career and started working with NASA on detection and tracking of near-Earth asteroids back in the '90s.
Lindley Johnson: One reason why, when I retired from the Air Force, what is now Planetary Science Division, NASA said, "We'd like you to come over and help us with program." That was just really getting started was just about a 2 to $3 million a year, what we call research and analysis program to fund some observatories to be searching for near-Earth asteroids.
Casey Dreier: Right. I just want to emphasize that number 2 to $3 million a year was what NASA was spending for the first, I'd say, what, close to 10 years of just... Is this pure NEO, oh right, near-Earth objects observations?
Lindley Johnson: Right. Certainly in the single digit million. So about eight years after that, it was about 4 million a year. And then we started adding money to it in about 2010.
Casey Dreier: I did a post on this that'll include in the show notes for this. It's remarkable how much has go grown in terms of resources being allocated for Planetary Defense, but it's equally remarkable to me, just how recent of a trend this is. As you said, 2010 is when it really started to kick up. But even then, we were talking about for most of the 20 teens, low tens of millions of year really. Not enough to support a flight program, right? You're really at this paying for some basic research, primarily buying telescope time, for these sky survey telescopes around the world to try to look for and characterize these objects.
Lindley Johnson: Right. And supporting related assets to be used for characterization like the infrared telescope facility in Hawaii and the planetary radar programs too were oversight management of NASA's involvement in those was consolidated under the NEO observations program in that period.
Casey Dreier: I mean, the concept hasn't necessarily changed since the late '80s, early '90s that there are big things out there that can hit us. So what took so long to build up to this point that we have it today? Why has it taken decades to not just acknowledge the problem, but to actually put some resources to what is a pretty straightforward value proposition of to not have a civilizationally disruptive impact catch us off guard? Were there key moments, or what helped make the case for actual investment in Planetary Defense?
Lindley Johnson: Well, the first thing is the awareness and understanding that this is still a hazard to the earth of being impacted by an asteroid. It's not just something that you had to worry about 65 million years ago as a dinosaur. It is still an active process in the solar system of asteroids impacting the planets. And the earth is vulnerable to, as any of them to this still occurring.
Lindley Johnson: We really they didn't know the extent of the population of near earth asteroids out there until the '80s and early '90s. Some of the early survey work that was done by like Tom Gehrels at University of Arizona and the Shoemakers, Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, and Glo Helin in the '90s started building this catalog of near-Earth asteroids. At the time that the near-Earth object observation program got its first starts within NASA's Planetary Science effort in '98, there were still only about 500 near-Earth asteroids total known at that time.
Lindley Johnson: Now, that catalog 23, 24 years later is up to 27,000 of all sizes. So it was a growing awareness that there's still a lot of stuff out there for us to be worried about and then transferring that scientific knowledge into, let me call it public policy of the United States government and in funding to go to NASA to improve our capabilities to do this.
Lindley Johnson: So it's a two or three-step process. First, you got to realize there's a problem. Then you have to translate that problem into something that is actionable by NASA in this case. And then get that funding into the whole budget process that the agency US government uses to get appropriations from Congress to go do it.
Casey Dreier: To that end, I wondered how much do you think really visible events, whether they're near misses or I was thinking moments like Shoemaker-Levy 9. I've done kind of this cursory analysis where it's hard to prove causality, but there is a surprising amount of correlation between, Shoemaker-Levy 9, and then right after that Congress request a NEO survey program and it's NASA authorization. Apophis was discovered in 2004 and then in the following year, he had the NEO Survey Act passed in NASA.
Casey Dreier: You had [inaudible 00:40:37] preceding one of the largest single year jumps percentage wise in terms of your budget. So does that play into this in terms of nature kind of doing education for you?
Lindley Johnson: Certainly, there's nothing like having video evidence of what it is that you're concerned with. Although a scientific understanding and the advocacy for doing something preceded those events, an effort was already underway to start to build this program. The actual scene it happened and having video footage that you can show people it actually happening convinces the people that weren't more closely involved that are still a part of the decision process for what goes into the budget and what actually gets appropriated.
Lindley Johnson: There was efforts going on with the house science committee before Shoemaker-Levy 9 happened in '94. But actually seeing that impact on Jupiter and the extent of the affected area, the damage that those impacts did was larger than Earth. So that just nailed the point to a home that this could be very serious damage if it were to happen here on Earth.
Lindley Johnson: So that really put a lot of energy behind NASA, getting a program going to find these objects, which resulted in the NASA authorization app in '98 originally establishing the near-Earth object observations program and then finding in the early parts of that program, more and more asteroids, closely approaching earth helped add emphasis to getting a broader program going science definition team, a report out of 2003, that then went into what we call the George E. Brown NEO survey acted of 2005, which is still the guiding direction for our NEO survey program to find all of the 140-meter and larger near-Earth asteroids.
Lindley Johnson: So we're often doing that. Then in the late 200s, early 2010, so more of the international efforts really got rolling under the United Nations and the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. We had a NEO working group that had been meeting for three or four years and developing recommendations for what we as an international community ought to be doing about near asteroids and had our reporter recommendations ready to go to present to the scientific and technical subcommittee of COPUOS and were actually scheduled to give the briefing the next day or so when [inaudible 00:43:45] happened. We were actually all in Vienna.
Casey Dreier: Perfect.
Lindley Johnson: Getting ready to give this briefing to the scientific and technical subcommittee when [inaudible 00:43:55] happened and you couldn't ask for a better explanation points on your briefing than that.
Casey Dreier: Right. It makes me think of Steven J. Gould's concept of punctuated equilibrium that sometimes you have these things that just knock things. You do all this preparatory work and then you have this event that spurs the broader bureaucracy to act or pushes over this hurdle or gives enough energy. To that same end and maybe a less traumatic way, I feel like there was a strong alignment of broader NASA interest in asteroids for a brief period in the 2010s that really helped the Planetary Defense office or helped you kind of gain resources when NASA was briefly considering sending humans to an asteroid and then you needed to asteroids for that.
Lindley Johnson: Well, that's true. I brought the awareness and the understanding that there are these asteroids that are in nearer space that are accessible to human space flight if we wanted to go that direction and made more people at NASA aware that really didn't have much of a concept of it before. Asteroids are the stuff of science fiction movies and just have to avoid hitting them with your spacecraft as you fly through the asteroid field. That just wasn't awareness. Even in the space community at large, that these objects come close to the Earth in its orbit and over time can impact the Earth.
Casey Dreier: Again, that's still fascinating to me. And just a really important reminder about just how new all of this is conceptually just as a field of study. We're talking about maybe 40-ish years old. I mean, they knew about asteroids, but establishing impacts were the cause of the cratering that we see in the moon and on the Earth. And then establishing the impact for the dinosaur events. And then obviously seeing it now, and as you said, discovering thousands and thousands and thousands of these things floating all around in space.
Casey Dreier: I mean, this has really only kicked up in the last quarter century. I think about the constitution does not have any clause talking about United States responsibility for Planetary Defense. They don't mention asteroids in there. It's a forward looking document, but not that forward looking.
Lindley Johnson: Yeah. Well, you know what, it falls under the clause, the common defense.
Casey Dreier: Common defense, exactly. Yeah. But what we're seeing here, I feel are these structures that were designed even NASA 1958 is when it was established and didn't really have a charge or awareness of near-Earth objects back then. So what we're seeing is these institutions, these bureaucracies slowly start to incorporate the understanding of this new field and this new responsibility into themselves and work it through this kind of process you were talking about from educating to creating policy actions to then ultimately getting it approved and funded by Congress. These are kind of by design, not fast systems. But once you get into-
Lindley Johnson: I don't think you want them to be overnight systems.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, right. Exactly. We're seeing this actually work in a way that it's designed to do just at this at stately pace. It's been fascinating to see this growth. Again, I think I did the calculation roughly in the last three years, Planetary Defense program has spent more money than it did the first 15 years of its existence at NASA just because it didn't have much to do. And this is why, again, I'm so excited to see DART happening because it seems to me like DART can be the first of something. It's just not like a one off mission. Right?
Lindley Johnson: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Casey Dreier: This should be the first of an ongoing series of Planetary Defense missions now that NASA is responsible for. Do you feel like you and your team and other folks at APL, do you feel... I mean, obviously you feel proud of DART and you've done exceptionally maintaining that mission during COVID. Do you feel like that has proven something to the rest of the agency that you can handle and will be continuing with this flight program beyond DART?
Lindley Johnson: Well, I think so, but it's not like we created it from scratch. I mean, this is all based upon the knowledge and expertise of Planetary Science missions that have been done by applied physics lab and JPL the last several decades. It's not really a separate entity from that regard. We're very closely linked with the Planetary Science program at NASA. In fact, I like to refer to Planetary Defense is applied planetary science. We're taking all this knowledge that we've gained over the years of small bodies, asteroids and comets in the solar system and missions to those objects and applying that knowledge then to knowing about what these objects are or where they're going, what they're composed of and what kind of spacecraft could be used then to divert them.
Casey Dreier: Is the next mission going to be for sure, the NEO Surveyor spacecraft?
Lindley Johnson: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Yes?
Lindley Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. That is absolutely our next mission. It is well into its preliminary design phase now leading to preliminary design review, that'll be about this time next year. So, yeah, that project is on its way now. And president's budget request for FY-22 actually gave us another significant plus up in our annual budget to really get that mission firmly on the road. So it's definitely the next mission for Planetary Defense. Some would say a more important mission than DART itself.
Lindley Johnson: Although, DART is our first mission and an important demonstration of the capability to deflect an asteroid, but it's NEO Surveyor that is going to allow us to find that population of 140 meter and larger near-Earth asteroids to complete that first... Well, I should say, actually second generation survey, our first direction was to find the one kilometer and larger ones, which we were able to do from the ground and completed that about 10 years ago. So finding them down to this 140 meters is another couple of orders of magnitude is actually a challenge when you think of the relative difficulty in detecting these objects in the couple orders of magnitude larger number of them.
Casey Dreier: My boss always likes to say, "There's a lot of space in space," is what he says. So to find these tiny little asteroids 140 meters across in that and then just... They're what? Basically the color of charcoal. It's not an easy problem. I wondered again, this is, again, thinking about the policy aspect of this is that in some ways it's really clear what to do. The solutions or investments-
Lindley Johnson: Once you know it's there, it's pretty clear what to go do. Yes.
Casey Dreier: It's like, first of all, we need to find them. We need to start working on how to deflect. But the actual resource allocation, that process of getting the resources to do what we know we need to do, that seems to be the hard part. To that end, I wonder if you have seen yet any change in thinking about this more broadly when you're making your argument within NASA to policy makers, even to the public given that we have just gone through a pandemic, right? This low probability event that still can and did happen that has these massive consequences for underinvestment. So have you seen any relationship between those two?
Lindley Johnson: Well, it's all a question of where things get prioritize. I mean, there are all kinds of great ideas and reasons for spending money, but where does it fall in the priority of things that US government ought to be pay, ought to be spending the taxpayers money on? I think that's more than anything. What takes a while in the budgeting process is figuring out where in the priority list, this fall relative to all this other stuff. The US government spends the taxpayers' money on, let alone just with NASA. What's the priority within NASA?
Lindley Johnson: Frankly, it took a few years for NASA to come to the consensus that the, this is probably somewhere on our priority list. Maybe not the highest thing, but certainly not the lowest thing that NASA ought to be doing. So that, I think more than anything is what takes the a few years for the system to really determine where that is. But I think we're firmly in the list now and part of the Planetary Science Portfolio. I don't think there's anybody now in planetary science, certainly and probably in the science mission director writ large that would say, "No, we shouldn't be doing this. This isn't part of what we do." I don't think you'd get that argument anymore. Whereas 15 years ago, you did. You definitely did.
Casey Dreier: Something that I noticed about DART was the lack of international contributions to it. Right. HERA is coming from the European space agency as a complimentary mission.
Lindley Johnson: Well, let me tell you-
Casey Dreier: Right. That's true. Correct me please. Yes.
Lindley Johnson: Yes. There is contribution and it's a CubeSat provided by the Italian Space Agency called the LICIACube. Don't ask me to remember what the acronym LICIA actually stands for, but it is a CubeSat that has two imaging cameras on it that will be deployed a few days before DART impacts Dimorphos and it will follow DART in an image they then try to get images of the ejective plume and also additional images of the asteroid itself, so we have a better idea of what is shape and size is. That will all go into our post-impact analysis and improvement of models of the event.
Casey Dreier: Forgive me, particularly the Italian Space Agency for that oversight. But I guess I was trying to get to this larger question of right now, it seems like NASA is the one who's the primary investor in spacecraft for Planetary Defense. I know you've done a lot of work through the UN through multiple UN working groups and building a coalition, particularly ground based observations around the world. What more can other space agencies do to participate in Planetary Defense activities? And maybe I'll toss in this extra bit of, I saw that China had its first, or at least that I was aware of, Planetary Defense Conference the other month. I know that there's legal issues that prevent NASA from working bilaterally with China. But can we talk more about, again, the opportunities for other of nations besides NASA that you see?
Lindley Johnson: Sure. We've talked about the HERA mission and ISA is seeing that as part of what they call their space safety program, which Planetary Defense is of part of that. But there's another natural opportunity coming up for us this decade with the close approach of Apophis to the Earth. I think because of the level of capabilities that are needed to do a mission to better characterize Apophis preferably before it actually does that close approach, we'd like to go out and characterize the asteroid before it gets that close to Earth to see what it looks like then because we want to compare it to what it looks like after this close approach.
Lindley Johnson: It'll tell us a lot about the composition of these objects and the strength both on the surface and internally of the object. I think this is a prime opportunity for some other agencies to lead missions, to Apophis because it is definitely within the capabilities of a number of other space agencies. The Japanese could certainly do this mission, no question about that, but it's also something and they are seriously looking at it of a Korean mission.
Lindley Johnson: I think after NEO Surveyor and looking toward the second half of this decade that we are going to see other space agencies step forward and say, "We want to lead this mission. I think you're going to see that, that evolution. The United States with its wealth and strength in our space program sort of a natural leader to get things started, but that doesn't mean we are going to lead everything.
Casey Dreier: To toss in here, The Planetary Society did submit papers to the decadal survey of the Planetary Science decadal survey process calling for missions to Apophis later in this decade as this opportunity, as you pointed out is rare and really accessible opportunity. I think that's a really great point that finding these natural opportunities that are within the scope and I can see small sats can get to Apophis. That's going to be very interesting opportunity. Maybe even commercial operators can go to fly by and bring data back.
Casey Dreier: For the ground based observation network, do you see more opportunities for other space nations or nations who just have observatories to contribute into that? Is that always growing? Is there an effort to keep that or is that kind of maxed out?
Lindley Johnson: No, no. It's always growing and more and more observatories around the world are joining. I don't think a month goes by that we don't get a submittal of a signatory to the international asteroid warning network. As more observatories around the world realize that, oh this is something they could really do and becoming aware of how to do it and where they can fit into that program. Most of them providing follow up observations after an object has been initially detected by the larger surveys that they can contribute to that overall effort.
Lindley Johnson: I think we now have somewhere close to 35 to 40 different signatories providing data under the auspices of the international asteroid warning network. Part of that is becoming aware of it. The other thing is the improvements in technologies and being able to have the camera systems to integrate the photons over time to lower the detection limits on the instrument telescopes, smaller telescopes that you have 10, 15 years ago.
Lindley Johnson: A half meter telescope wouldn't be able to detect all that much, but with today's technology, the CCD cameras and image integration algorithms that we have of 50 centimeter telescope can make a significant contribution and follow up observations.
Casey Dreier: What the question I get frequently is what does, if anything, Space Force contribute to the ability to detect near-Earth objects? Whether it's through shared assets or does it do a separate program of its own? How does NASA work with Space Force if at all on these issues?
Lindley Johnson: Yeah. Well, the first thing to understand that the Space Force's mission is first and foremost to know what's going on in the aerospace and protect our assets in aerospace. Stuff that is in orbit about the Earth that allows us to have the lifestyle and level of life supporting capabilities that we have today. There aren't very many things in modern society that aren't dependent upon space based assets, GPS, communication satellites, the weather satellites.
Lindley Johnson: There's a heck of a lot that depends on those kinds of things. It's Space Force's job to protect those assets. First of all, from not running into each other and second from some adversary that wants to try to wreak havoc with it. So they're not focused on this natural threat that comes from external to the earth system.
Lindley Johnson: However, some of the assets that they operate to do that space domain awareness are capable of also detecting these objects in the background. That's one way that we are working with us Space Force. They have a new telescope called the Space Surveillance Telescope that is in its standup and testing in Western Australia. As that system was designed, we at NASA worked with them to have the algorithms in place to process all the imaging that is collected to do its primary mission of space domain awareness to also be able to detect the asteroids that are passing through those fields of view on the background of stars and provide that data to the minor planets and they're just like all of our other asteroid survey telescopes do.
Lindley Johnson: That's a 3.5 meter telescope. One of the bigger ones that we will have ground based telescopes that we have in doing that mission prior to LSST going operational course in Chile. That's certainly one area that we're working with the US Space Force. Another area is detection of bow lines. Fireballs are hitting the Earth's atmosphere on a regular basis, not from the aspect of warning that they're going to hit before time, but from detecting that the Earth has been impacted by a natural object and collecting what we can about that by observing those impacts, getting data, basic data like the light curve of the event.
Lindley Johnson: We can determine what altitude of those objects have hit the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrated in the Earth's atmosphere and that tells you a lot about what their strength is and leads to clues about what the composition is.
Casey Dreier: Just to start thinking about out this big picture, obviously, we're still in this pandemic. We're still coming through this situation where, again, I see so many parallels where we have these networks of early detection kind of similar to test... Our early testing regimes are very similar to the NEON Surveyor mission. We have vaccine testing and deployment, which is something akin to an asteroid deflection.
Casey Dreier: We have a low probability event that can happen, but just so infrequent that people intuitively have a hard time internalizing it. So in between events, it can be very hard to prepare sufficiently for the massive impact, so to speak of a global pandemic or in this case, an asteroid potentially hitting Earth. A lot of it is going to depend on the proper functioning of bureaucracies, public communication, and then understanding statistics and probabilities.
Casey Dreier: From your perspective as NASA's Planetary Defense coordination officer, having also experienced the world of COVID in the last almost two years, do you feel less or more optimistic about what the world is capable of reacting to? Should we ever have a detection of an asteroid coming our way, or are there lessons that you have seen that we can apply to the same problem to make our response better?
Lindley Johnson: Well, I think there are several analogies that we've pointed out there. I definitely believe we are much better prepared today than we were 10 years ago. We have a much better understanding of what's out there, a better understanding of what they are and how to deal with them. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission is going to demonstrate a first generation deflection capability, let me call it. So we're in a much better posture than we were 10 years ago. I think the challenge though is though once the current panic has passed maintaining a practical level of continued work on the issue, we unfortunately have a history of once the crisis is over our attention turns to other things. Sometimes other crisis, but oftentimes just to life as normal everyday life, we have to remember that we need to continue a practical level of continued preparedness for what may happen in the future.
Lindley Johnson: Sometimes it's really hard to establish what is that level, because if you continue a level of preparedness, then that prevents you from when the next crisis occurs, suddenly being a panic and all the money in the world cannot get you into the position you need to react to that crisis. And asteroid impact is the primary example of that. If we have not done the work, first of all, detect these objects many years in the future of the work like DART to understand how we can deflect them if they are headed our direction.
Lindley Johnson: Trying to do something about it in the last few months before the impact, all the money in the world isn't going to make that happen. So I think that's the real lesson and the real challenge is there are things in this world that you have to keep after on a constant basis, but not at a crisis level and a crisis level of spending, but at something that's more practical and sustainable.
Lindley Johnson: I think we've gotten the Planetary Defense program at NASA now to about the right level of resource and attention. Our challenge will be to keep it there as other interests and other priorities that continue to compete for the dollar that goes into science at NASA, let alone planetary science.
Casey Dreier: Almost the way that you frame this, it sounds like we're maturing as a species, right? We have to have a concerned awareness of our cosmic situation and local area. And we don't have to panic, but it's something we need to pay attention to. Again, that strikes me as something that no other species has achieved yet that we know of. So it's a wonderful in a sense responsibility to have, an important responsibility, because in a sense we really hold the future and our future descendants will appreciate the work that we've done here for this to set them up to be able to respond or be aware or manage these risks more intelligently and capably.
Lindley Johnson: Right, yeah. Going back to NEO Surveyor, that is what is really important about the NEO Surveyor mission is it will find that population in a 140 meter and larger asteroids out there. We know where they're at , and the ones that we need to keep an eye on for the next several centuries. So there's this legacy that, that mission will hand down to future generations that there's a whole population of asteroids out there and you don't need to worry about most of them, but here's the subset you need to keep your eyes on.
Casey Dreier: That's wonderful. Lindley, thank you so much for taking your time and joining us today. Good luck with launching DART later this month. I can guarantee you, we will be watching it closely as well and hoping for the best.
Lindley Johnson: Well, thank you very much for your interest in support, in getting the word out to not only the space science community, but the public at large. It's what we're trying to achieve.
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Society senior space policy advisor and chief advocate, Casey Dreier talking with NASA's Planetary Defense officer, Lindley Johnson. And probably not the last time. We'll hear from Lindley on the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. Great conversation, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Thanks, Mat. And really, again, looking forward to seeing the launch of DART later this month. That's the evening of November 23rd. I believe the launch window opens around 10:00 PM Pacific Time. Launching on a Falcon 9. Something I didn't get into that is kind of an interesting aspect of that. For low cost missions like these, the cost of a Falcon 9 is so important relative to the overall cost of the mission compared to an Atlas 5.
Casey Dreier: These are substantial cost savings when your total mission cost, including the rocket is around 330 million. Changes in launch technology have really enabled missions like DART to succeed without blowing their budget or to have more missions like them for other missions that are saving money and launch costs.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, just a couple of other things to mention before we bow out. Your newsletter continues on a monthly basis. You want to tell people how they can find it?
Casey Dreier: It sure does, Mat, the Space Advocate Newsletter. If you don't like hearing what I say, you can always read what I say on the newsletter. You can go just type in Space Advocate Newsletter in Google, or you can find it in the links within the show at planetary.org.
Mat Kaplan: And once again, anybody who wants to get involved with, or at least find out about Day of Action, planetary.org/dayofaction, all one word.
Casey Dreier: That's right.
Mat Kaplan: Just one more plug, and that is once again to help us continue the great work that you've been hearing about. Everything that The Planetary Society does is made possible by its members. We hope that you will consider becoming one of them, if you are not already by visiting planetary.org/join and checking out all the different levels at which you can do exactly that. Casey and I are members. We would love to welcome you as part of the family.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, we'll talk again next month, and that it's just possible that you'll pop up during the weekly show, which can be heard every Wednesday across the coming weeks. And then we will be back on the first Friday of December to hopefully focus, as you said, in more detail on this brand new report from the National Academy of Sciences on the decadal survey, the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. So Casey, take care and we'll talk again soon.
Casey Dreier: Can't wait, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: Casey Dreier, as we said, senior space policy advisor and chief advocate for The Planetary Society. I'm Mat Kaplan. I hope you will tune in next Wednesday and every Wednesday for Planetary Radio. Until then, ad astra.