On Monday, NASA’s science chief committed to funding a space-based telescope to find the vast majority of near-Earth asteroids that may one day threaten Earth.
During an advisory committee meeting at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, DC, the agency’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said the agency was moving forward with the NEO Surveillance Mission, which would be ready to launch no earlier than 2025, at cost of less than $600 million.
“This is a priority for us,” Zurbuchen said. He has been negotiating with the White House and Congress to obtain funding for the mission, which will be paid for out of the agency’s planetary defense budget. NASA currently spends about $150 million a year to track and characterize hazardous objects, but that amount will need to increase in future years. The new surveillance mission’s launch date will depend on funding allocated for the project.
In the past, Congress has been broadly supportive of finding hazardous asteroids. In 2005, Congress passed a law requiring NASA to find, track, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth asteroids and comets equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter. But the White House and Congress have failed to agree on specific funding for the program, and efforts have languished. In surveys, asteroid detection consistently rates as a top public priority.
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Now, with the urging of Zurbuchen, the White House and Congress appear to coming closer to a decision. “NASA’s commitment to a space-based asteroid survey is a huge step forward for anyone who cares about human destiny,” Richard Binzel, an asteroid expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Ars. “We are finally going to rely on knowledge, rather than luck, as our plan for dealing with hazardous asteroids.”
As part of NASA’s plan, the agency has accelerated development of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2021. This mission will use a kinetic impactor to try and deflect the smaller component of the binary asteroid, Didymos, which has a diameter of 160 meters. After launching this redirect mission, NASA will then turn its attention toward funding the new surveillance mission.
Scientists generally agree that asteroids with a diameter of 140 meters or larger are big enough to cause regional devastation that is unprecedented in human history. The new mission will detect 65 percent of the undiscovered asteroids 140 meters or larger near Earth within five years, Zurbuchen said. It will find 90 percent of them within 10 years.
Zurbuchen said the NEO Surveillance Mission would use technology previously studied for NEOCam mission, which never got past the design phase. The new mission will be led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“This is a big step,” said Lori Glaze, director of planetary science, at Monday’s meeting. “It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for quite a while. We’re finally in a position where we’re ready to move forward.”