Wednesday, January 18, 2006

According to NASA, Our Mission To Pluto Is More Important Than Asteroid Mitigation

Perhaps you've heard of the recent mission to Pluto, "New Horizons(PKB)", which is designed to "characterize the global geology and morphology of Pluto and its moon Charon, map their surface composition and characterize Pluto's neutral atmosphere and its escape rate." The projected cost of the mission is "planned to be under $550 million".

$550 million. To visit Pluto.

$4 million a year is spent out of NASA's budget tracking asteroids. Nothing is spent towards developing a mitigation program capable of protecting us if a threat is discovered. As I mentioned in an earlier post the planetary scientist Don Yeomans has stated that in regards to who handles mitigation if the threat is discovered "NASA does not have the charter to look at that, nor does anyone else," he said. "That's the point - no one does at the moment."

So creating a program to pro-actively develop a department or charter that would be the lead in handling mitigation procedures is not important at all to NASA, but taking pictures of rocks on Pluto is.

Perhaps the most advanced and potentially feasible project that has been proposed at this time is the Gravitational Tractor. Proposed by Ed Lu and Stan Love of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the tractor would hover some tens of meters from a spinning asteroid. Only the force of gravity would connect the two.

Careful control of the tractor's thrusters would keep the craft close to the asteroid as it slowly pulled the rock off its collision course. Given enough lead time, it would take just a year for a 20-ton spacecraft to drag a 200-meter-wide asteroid weighing about 60 million tons away from Earth's path, Lu and Love calculate in the Nov. 10 Nature Magazine (subscription required for access to link).

Someone explain to me why NASA is spending half a billion dollars to take pictures of rocks on Pluto, yet won't spend a single dime researching ways to mitigate asteroids. I'm not suggesting we scrap every existing NASA program to concentrate ONLY on mitigation (although really, what's the point of all the other programs if we discover a serious NEO threat?), but at least raise the level of priority of asteroid mitigation from zero-to-none to say, above Pluto's rocks. Is this really that unreasonable? Is it too much to ask to be pro-active towards this issue as opposed to head-in-the-sand denial?

NASA has a yearly budget in the range of $16 billion. Spending half a billion on Pluto and NOTHING on NEO mitigation is an irresponsible and negligent use of my tax dollars.

No comments: