Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Near Earth Object Congressional Hearings: November 2007

The House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing on November 8th to examine the status of NASA's Near Earth Object Survey program.

You can read the entire testimony here. I will attempt to narrow it down for you, my dear readers and fellow earthlings.

The hearing began with the testimony of Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall(D - CO), who after a giving brief tribute to the people who have helped to push the NEO issue forward through congress and in to the public eye, starts immediately in to the main deficiency that we have regarding NASA and the NEO issue.

Congressman Udall-
"As we will hear from our witnesses, much progress has been made in detecting and cataloging the largest NEOs over the last decade. However--as we will also hear--much more remains to be done.

In particular, we need to survey potentially hazardous asteroids that are smaller than the ones cataloged to date, but which could do significant damage if they impact or explode above the Earth's surface near populated areas. That is why Congress directed NASA to "plan, develop, and implement" a NEO survey program for objects as small as 140 meters in size in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.

As a result, I'm disappointed and concerned that NASA's report to Congress failed to provide a recommended option and budget plan for such a survey, as directed by the Act. In fact, the report says NASA has no plans to do anything beyond the current Spaceguard program at this time. (my emphasis-ed.)

Equally troubling, one of the NASA witnesses will testify that "NASA would be pleased to implement a more aggressive NEO program if so directed by the President and Congress,"--with the implication that Congress has not yet done so. I think Sec. 321 of the NASA Authorization Act, which I quoted earlier, is unambiguous--Congress has in fact directed NASA to "plan, develop, and implement" such a program. And we would hope that the President would send over a NASA budget request that reflects that congressional direction.

Today, I want to focus on where we go from here. Given the lack of a clear plan in NASA's report to Congress, I hope that our witnesses today will be able provide some guidance to this Committee on the best and most cost-effective path forward for meeting the goal of surveying NEOs down to 140 meters in size."

First of all, we can't even track 100% of the asteroids in our solar system bigger than 1 half a mile across. We're up to around 85%, last time I checked. While it pleases me to see a congressman trying to get the window down to even 140 meters in size, which is about what many scientists believe is the size of the impactor that felled an estimated 80 million trees over 800 square miles in Tunguska in 1908, it would make more sense to me to have NASA get started on some type of mission that would have more practical applications for mitigating a possible impact.

Simply put, we're never going to find them all, even the big ones. This isn't to say we should stop looking, but at some point we have to come up witha way to deal with stopping one of these, and as I'm always screaming here on this blog, we currently have NOTHING on the drawing board in terms of real applications.

Congressman Udall brings up some questions about this in a question to the panel-

Fourth, surveying NEOs is just part of the task. If we find one that it is headed towards Earth, we will need to have good options for deflecting it. What priority should be given to developing deflection technologies versus NEO survey systems in the coming years?

Then we have Rep. Luis G. Fortuño, Congressman from Puerto Rico who makes an excellent argument for a commitment to further funding of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

According to Director Michael Griffin, NASA does not have the funds to carry out a more extensive program. There have been suggestions that NASA and the National Science Foundation should cooperate to fund the construction of a new ground-based telescope to perform tracking functions of Near Earth Objects and other astronomy surveys. I do not think we need to take on such a burden, as there is still a great deal of information to be gained by utilizing the unique capabilities of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. As the world's largest and most powerful radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory is essential to monitoring and surveying Near Earth Objects. However, the National Science Foundation has threatened to close the Observatory in 2011 and NASA has so far been unwilling to assume funding of the radar required for tracking NEOs. Closing the Observatory will severely limit our ability to quickly and accurately refine the orbits of newly emerging threats, and reduce our monitoring capabilities.

This is why I have introduced HR 3737, which directs the National Science Foundation and NASA to work together to ensure continued full funding of the Arecibo Observatory and in particular, the radar. It is my recommendation that these agencies start working collaboratively and reconsider how they allocate their funding.

Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Feeney, the Arecibo Observatory's radar is the world's most powerful instrument for post-discovery characterization and orbital refinement of near Earth asteroids. The observations performed with the radar are critical for identifying asteroids that might be on a collision course with Earth. I respectfully urge the committee to consider continuing the important work performed by the Arecibo Observatory and consider, as well, HR 3737 as one potential solution to this challenge. The unique capabilities of radar are critically important as we work towards fulfilling the 2005 congressional mandate of detecting and characterizing 90% of near Earth Objects down to 140 meters in diameter.

We need to fund Arecibo. Period. Without it, we take away one of our biggest windows in to space in terms of tracking NEO's. Kudos to Rep. Luis G. Fortuño.

Next up, in full ass covering mode is James Green, Science Mission Directorate from NASA HQ. Here are some the high(low)lights from his testimony. Keep this in mind while reading these quotes: NASA's estimated budget for 2008 is around $17 BILLION.

(referring to the Spacegaurd Sruvey)
"Since the program's inception in 1998, NASA has funded over $30M in NEO search efforts using funds from the Science Mission Directorate's Research and Analysis program. To date, these efforts have found the vast majority of the 724 one-kilometer Near Earth Asteroids and 64 Earth approaching comets now known, as well as the 4,128 known smaller NEOs. At the current discovery rate, we will have found about 50 more NEOs larger than one kilometer by the end of 2008, bringing us very close to achieving our 90% goal, measured against the current estimate of about 940 total one-kilometer objects. This work has retired the majority of the risk that Earth could be struck by a large asteroid in the foreseeable future."

That's it. $30 million. Unbelievable.

This part kind of sucks too-

No significant NEO detection efforts are currently conducted by the international community. Less than 2% of NEOs detected in the last ten years were found by systems other than those funded by NASA.

I really wasn't counting on France anyways, but hey, anything helps. Moving on-

On NASA's current and former space missions and their contributions to the NEO program:
Currently, spacecraft missions do not contribute to the detection of NEOs. However, space missions do provide the most significant and detailed information on what we know about the character and composition of them. NASA Discovery missions such as the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), Stardust, Deep Impact, and the Japanese Hyabusa mission have contributed important information to our understanding of the origin of comets and asteroids, providing insight on their evolution into the inner Solar System near the Earth, their structure and physical properties, and their composition. The recently launched Dawn mission will travel to the two largest objects in the Main Belt of Asteroids - Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. This area of the Solar System has been shown to be the region of origin for most of the objects that now are near Earth, and the Dawn mission will tell us many things about their nature. Other significant contributions by spacecraft include studies by the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer, Galileo, and other asteroid and comet flybys performed by several Solar System exploration missions.

Not only are these data important to the development of concepts to deal with any impact threat an NEO may pose, but they are also critical to an understanding of the nature NEOs for possible destinations and resources in our future exploration of the Solar System.

While NASA does not have any formal responsibility for the task of mitigation, scientific missions such as Deep Impact and the current Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres provide information that may be critical to planning an asteroid deflection. Likewise, many of the systems and technologies that are being developed for exploration missions are directly applicable to mitigation missions. These capabilities are the hallmarks of a robust, space-faring nation.

This was a great question-

Will NASA's current NEO program satisfy the requirement established in Sec. 321(d)(1) of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, and if not, what is NASA's plan for satisfying that requirement?

Although the current systems funded by NASA are capable of detecting objects smaller than one kilometer in size, the objects must come significantly closer to the Earth than a one kilometer object needs to in order to be detected. It would take timescales much longer than 15 years to observe 90% of these objects with the systems we currently use.

As outlined in the report NASA submitted to Congress on March 7, 2007, pursuant to direction in section 321 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-155), the Agency recommended that the current survey program, funded at approximately $4M annually, be continued. In addition, NASA indicated that the Agency would look for opportunities using potential dual-use telescopes and spacecraft--and to partner with other agencies as feasible--to attempt to achieve the legislated goal within 15 years. Several alternatives as to how this might be accomplished were presented and analyzed in the March 7 report. However, due to current budget constraints, it is not possible for NASA to initiate a new program. The costs for the alternative programs ranged from $470M to in excess of $1.0B over 10 to 19 years, depending on how aggressive of a timeline would be pursued.

Short Answer: "Um, no. We spent too much money on the ISS. Whoops. Hope we can fit the population of the earth inside the ISS if we ever find a true NEO threat, because that's our species only chance at survival."

Again- $17 BILLION next year ALONE. Scott Pace, from the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation at NASA HQ continues-

The current NASA NEO "Spaceguard Survey" program, without any augmentation, would not be able to satisfy the requirements outlined in section 321(d)(1) of the NASA Authorization Act for 2005. The requirements for the Spaceguard Survey program are to find only NEOs greater than 1 kilometer in diameter, and its funding is currently budgeted at $4.1 million per year. NASA estimates that the current program, if continued without major augmentation, would detect 14 percent of the 140 meters or larger potentially hazardous objects by the end of 2020. However, NASA is initiating plans to use other survey systems to increase the survey's detection sensitivity and rates. For example, NASA has begun providing funds to the Air Force Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) project so that it will be capable of providing data on NEO detections after it starts operations on its first telescope in the next year. If the Air Force continues to fund this project to its intended four telescope configuration by 2010, this system alone could discover over 70 percent of the potentially hazardous objects larger than 140 meters by 2020.

NASA recommended that the existing "Spaceguard Survey" program continue as currently planned, and that NASA would also take advantage of opportunities using potential dual-use telescopes and spacecraft--and partner with other agencies as feasible--to make progress toward achieving the legislative goal of discovering 90 percent of all potentially hazardous objects 140 meters and greater.

NASA would be pleased to implement a more aggressive NEO program, if so directed by the President and Congress. However, given the constrained resources and strategic objectives the Agency has already been tasked with, NASA cannot place a new NEO program above current scientific and exploration missions.

What I take from Mr. Pace is that if Congress would direct NASA to reallocate the resources currently used by NASA, the $17 BILLION worth of resources, that they could meet the requirements outlined in section 321(d)(1) of the NASA Authorization Act for 2005.

Classic bureaucracy in action- "hey, it's not our fault- it's Congress! Just tell us what to do!" . Congress tells them what to do and when, and then NASA says they can't unless, well, unless Congress tells them what to do!


Finally a voice of reason sets in with Donald Yeomans, from the NEO Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

As noted, the current NASA NEO goal is focused upon the discovery and tracking of objects one kilometer in diameter and larger. It is not realistic to expect the current survey program, with its modestly sized telescopes, to efficiently find the 140 meter-sized objects that are nearly 50 times fainter compared to a one kilometer-sized object at the same distance and with the same reflectivity. Because all PHAs do eventually come very close to the Earth, the current ongoing surveys could complete the goal outlined in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act but it would likely take over a century to do so. We cannot afford to wait that long.

In the report to Congress requested by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, several options were outlined, both ground-based and space-based, that could meet the goal of finding 90% of the PHAs larger than 140 meters by the end of 2020. For example, a one-meter aperture infrared telescope in a heliocentric orbit near Venus could do the job three years early. Within this report, NASA noted that it did not have the resources to carry out a survey option that would meet the 2020 deadline set by the 2005 Act and that, in an attempt to achieve the legislative goal by the end of 2020, it would seek to continue the current survey programs and look for opportunities to use dual use telescope facilities and spacecraft along with partnering with other agencies as feasible.

What Should be Done in the Event of an identified NEO Threat? A number of existing technologies can deflect an Earth threatening asteroid - if there is time. The primary goal of the PHA survey programs is to discover them early and provide the necessary time. An asteroid that is predicted to hit Earth might require a change in its velocity of only 3 millimeters per second if this impulse were applied twenty years in advance of the impact. The key to a successful deflection is having sufficient time to carry it out, whether it is the slow, gentle drag of a gravity tractor or a more impulsive shove from an impacting spacecraft or explosive device. In either case, a verification process would be required to ensure the deflection maneuver was successful and to ensure the object's subsequent motion would not put it on yet another Earth impacting trajectory. While suitable deflection technologies exist, none of them can be effective if we are taken by surprise. It is the aggressive survey efforts and robust planetary radars that must ensure that the vast majority of potentially hazardous objects are discovered and tracked well in advance of any Earth threatening encounters. The first three steps in any asteroid mitigation process are: Find them early, find them early, and find them early!

To sum up the hearings, I would say that we have somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the much needed argument for the continued funding of the Arecibo Observatory was made by all participants, and hopefully this will get some appropriations. As far as the Spacegaurd Suveys go, we are still behind on cataloging the big ones, and NASA's reps pretty much told Congress that they can't do what they were told to do as per the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, unless Congress.....tells them what to do. Fortunately, we have guys like Donald Yeomans and David Morrison around who are well aware of NASA's shortcomings, and are working around them to develop true answers like the folks at the B612 Foundation.

Next summer will be 100 years since the Tunguska impact. We have a long way to go before even pretending to think we could stop another impact as small as the Tunguska impact. And at $17 Billion I don't think we're getting our moneys worth from NASA in terms of protecting us from NEO's.

No comments: