Astrobiology and SETI: different evolutionary pathways

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Credit: Youtube.com

 

Following up on my last two posts, about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), today I’m writing about the separate, non-parallel paths on which astrobiology and SETI evolved.*

Some might perceive that exobiology/astrobiology and SETI are closely linked. Actually, at least at NASA, this is, and has not been, not the case. NASA’s exobiology program and NASA’s SETI program had different origins and developed on different tracks.

In addition, since the 1980s research results in both exo/astrobiology and astronomy and astrophysics have weakened any perceived link with SETI (see yesterday’s post), with both fields focusing more and more intently on understanding the origin and evolution of stars, planets, and life; assessing planetary habitability; and detecting single-celled life as we know it and as we don’t know it. And since the late 1950s, exo/astrobiology has expanded its purview to embrace the comprehensive study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, while SETI remains primarily focused on its original, narrow goal: detect radio signals of extraterrestrial technological (that is, intelligent) origin.

Here’s an abbreviated history of the field of exo/astrobiology and NASA’s exo/astrobiology program and of the concept of SETI and NASA’s SETI program.

I’ll start with exo/astrobiology.

Exo/astrobiology arose as a field of study in the late 1950s once scientists realized they would soon have access to space – that is, the ability to look for evidence of life in the solar system.

At that time, Joshua Lederberg (who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958) began communicating with colleagues about the possibility of searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life (not intelligent life) in the solar system.  Through the National Academy of Sciences and other means, Lederberg played a key role in NASA’s establishment of an exobiology program.

In 1959, NASA sent a “work request” to the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Science Board (SSB) for input on “basic philosophical objectives that should underlie” NASA space science activities. In this request NASA stated that one “very exciting, philosophical basis for a space science program would be to learn as much as possible about the behavior of terrestrial life forms in space and under the conditions of space flight, and to seek out extraterrestrial life. The philosophical implications of a discovery that life does indeed exist elsewhere than on earth are tremendous, and surely of interest to the entire world, as well as to the scientist.”

In 1959, NASA funded its first exobiology grant, to Wolf Vishniac, for his Wolf Trap experiment that was intended to fly on the Viking mission to Mars (it ultimately was dropped from the mission due to weight limits).

In 1960, NASA established an exobiology research program. Also in 1960, Lederberg gave a paper on exobiology at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research, then published the paper in Science. He wrote: “Exobiology is no more fantastic than the realization of space travel itself, and we have a grave responsibility to explore its implications for science and for human welfare with our best scientific insights and knowledge.’’

In 1964, the SSB recommended to NASA associate administrator of space science and applications Homer Newell that NASA should adopt as its most important space science goal for 1971-1986 “the exploration of planets with particular emphasis on Mars leading toward eventual manned exploration. This objective includes the search for extraterrestrial life.”

In the 1980s, responding to input from the scientific community, NASA expanded the purview of the program: it became the exobiology and evolutionary biology program.

Fast forward to the late 1990s, when NASA created an astrobiology program, encompassing and expanding on its established exobiology program to include studies of chemical evolution in interstellar space, the formation and evolution of planets, and the natural history of Earth.

In 2007, the SSB’s Committee on the Origin and Evolution of Life delivered three astrobiology reports to NASA: Exploring Organic Environments in the Solar System, An Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, and Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute(established 1998).

In 2015, the astrobiology community, in collaboration with NASA’s astrobiology program, produced an astrobiology science strategy that reflects the growth in breadth, depth, and complexity in the field. Currently the astrobiology program is commencing some reorganization to better focus on key questions in astrobiology (subject of a future post).

Now to SETI.

As Steve Dick has documented in his books Plurality of Worlds: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant(1982) and Life on Other Worlds:The 20thCentury Extraterrestrial Life Debate(2001), the idea of extraterrestrial intelligent life is thousands of years old and has been discussed among philosophers, scientists, and others throughout human history.

As to “modern” SETI, I suppose one could say that it began in 1959, when Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published “Searching for interstellar communications” in Nature. In their paper they proposed that ground-based telescopes could be used to listen for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.

In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake conducted the first U.S. SETI search, Project Ozma, at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

In 1961, the National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting on SETI at the Green Bank Observatory. Frank Drake and Philip Morrison were in attendance, as was Carl Sagan (see below).

In 1968, John Billingham, a physician by training who had worked with NASA Johnson Space Center on spacesuit technology, joined NASA’s Ames research center in Mountain View, California, as chief of its biotechnology division. Shortly after arriving, he happened to read Soviet astronomer Iosif Shklovskii and Carl Sagan’s book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, published in the U.S. in 1966. (Shklovskii had first published the book in Russian.) Billingham reportedly found the book fascinating, and he began to talk with colleagues at Ames about the possibility of some sort of SETI project at Ames.

In 1969, Hans Mark became director of NASA Ames. Billingham proposed to Mark that NASA do a design study of a system for detecting ETI signals. Mark approved funds for a small study. Billingham oversaw the study in 1970 and then went back to Mark with a proposal for a larger study. Mark approved it.

In 1971, Barney Oliver, then at Hewlett Packard, led the larger study, which produced a concept for a large-scale SETI search called Project Cyclops. The cost of the 10-15 year project was estimated at $6 billion-$10 billion. Obviously, it was a non-starter.

In 1973, SETI researchers at Ames developed a SETI project plan and briefed it to NASA administrator James Fletcher, who did not approve it. In 1974, NASA Ames presented a revised SETI project plan to NASA HQ, and Fletcher approved  $140,000 for SETI in fiscal year 1975.

In 1976, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) director Bruce Murray proposed conducting an all-sky SETI survey. (The NASA Ames SETI team favored a targeted search.) In 1976, NASA HQ approved $775,000 for a SETI research program to be managed by NASA Ames.

By 1977, SETI funding did not materialize. Mark complained to NASA HQ: “We will be lucky to see a third of that.”

In 1978, Democratic Senator William Proxmire gave SETI a Golden Fleece award. Those awards were intended to bring attention to projects that Proxmire deemed “government waste.”

In 1979, the first joint Ames/JPL SETI program meeting took place. NASA budgeted $300,000 for SETI. In 1980, NASA budgeted $500,000 for SETI, drafted a program plan, and formed a SETI Science Working Group. In 1981, NASA HQ cut the 10-year SETI program plan in half.

In 1981, Sen. Proxmire attached an amendment to NASA’s FY82 appropriations legislation that prohibited spending on SETI. In 1982, Carl Sagan came to SETI’s rescue, obtaining a meeting with Proxmire, the result of which was that Proxmire agreed not to enforce the prohibition. Proxmire told me in a telephone interview (for my chapter in First Contact) that while Sagan’s efforts and NASA’s responses to his questions convinced him that there was just enough sense to SETI to justify the small amount of funding allotted to it, “there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever” that life exists beyond Earth.

In fiscal year 1983, Congress appropriated $1.6 million for SETI, for the first year of a five-year R&D program.

In 1987 and 1989, Barney Oliver briefed White House officials on SETI, at the request of White House Science Advisor William Graham (who at some point served as acting administrator of NASA).

In 1989, the Ames and JPL SETI teams began advocacy campaigning on Capitol Hill. (It was at this point that I went to work with the SETI program, as a contractor, to help with advocacy planning.) Advocates for the Ames team were SETI Institute employees and not subject to restrictions placed on civil servants.

In October 1992, the two-pronged SETI search – the High-Resolution Microwave Survey – began. In the summer of 1993, Congress canceled the project.

To my mind, the history/evolution of exo/astrobiology more closely parallels the history/evolution of planetary protection. Exo/astrobiology and SETI evolved on very different, non-parallel tracks.

* Much of the information in this post comes from my chapter on NASA’s SETI program, “From the observatory to Capitol Hill,” in Ben Bova and Byron Preiss, eds., First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, New American Library, 1990; and from my paper, “Astrobiology in culture: the search for extraterrestrial life as science,” Astrobiology 12(10), 2012. I am a consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.

 

 

 

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SETI: on the edge of astrobiology

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Credit: space-facts.com

Following up on yesterday’s post about Rep. Lamar Smith’s interest in SETI and the inclusion of $10 million for a “search for technosignatures” (SETI) in a NASA authorization bill for 2018-2019, I’m going to review a little history of SETI.

SETI advocates have been arguing of late that SETI should be funded by NASA’s astrobiology program.* I disagree.

SETI uses ground-based telescopes to listen for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin. (As noted in a PBS TV program“NOVA Wonders Are We Alone?”, which aired last week, “we’ve been listening for almost 60 years, and, so far, crickets.”) It’s the National Science Foundation that funds ground-based telescopes (and historically, many ground-based telescopes have been, and continue to be, public-private partnerships.)

Following historical guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, SETI falls within the domain of astronomy and astrophysics – not astrobiology. Some of the Academies’ decadal surveys of astronomy and astrophysics have noted the promise of searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by using radio telescopes to listen for signals of technological origin. (See below.)

However, no decadal survey has recommended SETI as a research priority for NASA, the National Science Foundation, or any other federal agency, nor has the Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) or the SSB’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) (or CAPS’ predecessor the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life). While some scientists in astronomy/astrophysics and the astrobiology community see value in searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, most see SETI as a highly speculative, long-term endeavor. Less speculative, shorter-term space research projects take precedence for federal funding.

In its “SETI 2020” research roadmap, published by the SETI Institute in 2002, the SETI community itself noted, “The annual appropriations of funds in a political arena are, in hindsight, a poor venue for support for an open-ended quest. We need to fall back on historical precedent, and primarily rely on philanthropy to fund the search.”  (Clearly the Institute has changed its strategy since then, presumably because, Breakthrough Listen aside, sufficient private-sector funding is not forthcoming.)

In my humble opinion, SETI is an endeavor that falls outside the purview of government funding and is suited to private-sector support.

NASA did fund a SETI program from 1972 to 1993 (more on how this happened in a subsequent post). Congress cancelled the program in 1993. Neither the astronomy and astrophysics community nor the exobiology/astrobiology community has embraced SETI as a priority for government funding since then.

The astrobiology community is in agreement that searching for evidence of habitability and life in our own solar system and studying the potential habitability of planets around other stars should remain top priorities in space research. It does not assign high priority to SETI. The 2015 astrobiology science strategy, a product of input from hundreds of members of the astrobiology community and published by NASA, has this to say about SETI:

“There is the question of technological civilizations elsewhere. Complex life may evolve into cognitive systems that can employ technology in ways that may be observable. Nobody knows the probability, but we know that it is not zero. As we consider the environments and biospheres of other planets, this is among the type of developments we could anticipate. While traditional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is not part of astrobiology, and is currently well-funded by private sources, it is reasonable for astrobiology to maintain strong ties to the SETI community.

There are also other ways not included in contemporary SETI that astrobiology can contribute to the search for technological life. Chief among these is the search for “technosignatures.” As we explore the exoplanets and search for biosignatures, we should also be aware of the possibility that technological life could also perturb atmospheric composition, or other planetary qualities, in observable ways. Rather than argue for or against the likelihood of finding such a signature, or attempt to describe specifically what such a signature would look like, we should be sure to include it as a possible kind of interpretation we should consider as we begin to get data on the exoplanets.”

But let’s go back to guidance from the National Academies. From its beginning, NASA has sought, and largely heeded, advice from the Academies on priorities in space science (within the limits of its budget…). The National Academy of Sciences has conducted decadal surveys of astronomy and astrophysics since the 1970s. It produced its first decadal survey of priorities in planetary science in 2003 and its second in 2012. (The latter survey is now in midterm review.)

Over the past 50 years, the SSB has produced numerous reports and recommendations relating to exobiology and astrobiology. While the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life has remained a top research priority in SSB reports, SETI has not.

In an August 11, 1964, memorandum to NASA associateadministrator for space science and applications HomerNewell on ‘‘future goals of the space science program,’’ the Academies’ Space Science Board (predecessor of the Space Studies Board) recommended that NASA adopt as its most importantspace science goal for 1971–1986 ‘‘the exploration of planetswith particular emphasis on Mars leading toward eventualmanned exploration. This objective includes the search forextraterrestrial life.’’

In a 1971 report, Priorities for Space Research 1971-1980, the SSB stated:

“Exobiology…involves not only the search for evidence of past or present extraterrestrial life but also for indications of nonbiological chemical evolution that could support or clarify our present ideas about the origin of life and the possibility that terrestrial life might survive on other planets. This field has almost universally caught the imagination of scientists and the public at large… The study of exobiology – particularly if life is found elsewhere in the universe – will have a profound impact.”

The Academies’ decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the 1970s, conducted for NASA and the National Science Foundation and published in 1972, addressed the promise of searching for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin:

“Our civilization is within reach of one of the greatest steps in its evolution: knowledge of the existence, nature, and activities of independentcivilizations in space…. An assurance of rapid results cannot be made in a search for extraterrestrial civilizations. Such a search is akin to the one for the proverbial needle, but in this case the haystack contains three dimensions of space and two more of time and frequency, and there may be no needle. It is only our knowledge of the value of that needle, if it exists, that compels us to pursue such a difficult objective…. Despite the power and promise of our instruments for serious searches for other civilizations, no major search has taken place. The explanation lies in the intense pressure on major astronomical instruments to produce the astrophysical results that are the mainstream of astronomical research. Because we cannot accurately predict the effort needed to detect another civilization, quick results cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the time estimated for a single radio telescope to yield a reasonable probability of success is a few decades, even with high-speed equipment and procedures. In today’s rush such a time scale is usually considered unacceptable. Nevertheless, each passing year has seen our estimates of the probability of life in space increase, along with our capabilities for detecting it.”

This survey committee did not recommend the undertaking of a SETI search. Its top priorities for the ‘70s were the construction of astronomy facilities, with top priority assigned to the Very Large Array.

The Academies’ decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the 1980s was conducted, again, for NASA and NSF, and published in 1982. The committee assembled to conduct this survey set up seven working groups, including one on SETI. This survey committee recommended four major new programs and seven “moderate” new programs. Among the “moderate” programs was SETI:

“The recommended moderate new programs address a variety ofopportunities in astronomy…. While the Committee recognizedthat [SETI] has a character different from that normally associated withastronomical research, intelligent organisms are as much a part of the Universe asstars and galaxies; investigating whether some of the electromagnetic radiationnow arriving at Earth was generated by intelligent beings in space may thus beconsidered a legitimate part of astronomy. Moreover, the techniques that can nowbe most effectively brought to bear on a SETI program for the 1980’s are those ofastronomy…. Since the chance for a successful detection in the next decade is quite uncertain and may be small, it should be understood that the SETI effort is to be undertaken on a long-term, evolutionary basis…. Modest support of such programs by U.S. funding agencies is a legitimate scientific activity, and choice of programs within each agency should be made through the normal process of peer review.”

The Academies’ decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the ‘90s presented a different perspective on SETI. In considering the scientific potential of searching for evidence of life in our solar system and searching for planets around other stars, the SSB’s Task Group on Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 1990s noted in its report:

“[SETI] has a different character than the broader-based search for life and is not addressed in this study. Obviously, if the NASA Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program were to find radio signals from another planetary system, it would be a tremendously exciting and significant event. In the case of the more restricted study described here, even the hint of life in another planetary system would trigger a new era in planetary research.”

Although the Academies had not endorsed SETI as a top priority in space research, NASA did initiate a 10-year SETI research and development program in the 1980s,to culminate in a ground-based search for signals. NASA started its SETI listening project in 1992. Congress cancelled it in 1993.

The SSB’s first decadal survey of priorities in solar system exploration, commissioned by NASA in 2001 and published in 2003, identified four ‘‘cross-cutting themes that integrate the various goals identified by the panels,” including key themes in astrobiology: the first billion years of solar system history; volatiles and organics; the stuff of life; and the origin and evolution of habitable worlds. The next SSB decadal survey of priorities in solar system exploration, commissioned by NASA and published in 2012, highlighted the growing role of astrobiology in planetary exploration. Neither of these surveys addressed SETI.

In the NASA Authorization Act of 2000, Congress called for a National Academies review of NASA and other government and nongovernment programs focused on the search for life in the universe. In a 2003 report on this review, the SSB’s Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL) noted:

“Perhaps the most romantic venture in astrobiology is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This effort has had a checkered reception by scientists and federal lawmakers, with the result that the current efforts are almost entirely privately funded. The SETI Institute…the nexus of such efforts in the United States, has accomplished in a spectacular way the founding of a science institute and the procurement of stable private funding to carry on the search.”

I should like to note that in 2005, NASA awarded a grant to a SETI researcher for a project called “detection of complex, electronic markers of technology.” In 2008, NASA amended its solicitation for space science research proposals to include “detection and characterization of other planetary systems including those that may harbor intelligent life” within the scope of its Origins of Solar Systems research program.

The bottom line is that traditional SETI – using ground-based radio telescopes to listen for signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin – falls outside the boundaries of NASA’s astrobiology program.

All National Academies reports cited in this post are available free online at www.nap.edu.

* I am a consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.

Congress is not pushing NASA to fund SETI

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Credit: phys.org

On May 9, The Atlantic magazine posted a storyon its website with a misleading title: “Congress is quietly nudging NASA to look for aliens.”

Congress is doing no such thing.

What has actually happened – as The Atlantic story does explain – is that the House Committee on Science, Technology, and Space, which is responsible for authorizing (not appropriating) NASA funding has proposed a NASA authorization billfor fiscal years 2018-2019 that states (Subtitle B, Section 311):  “NASA shall partner with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to the maximum extent practicable to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe. Subject to the availability of appropriations, the Administrator shall make available at least $10,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2018 and 2019 for the search for technosignatures.”

That’s it. The authorization bill has to be approved by the House. The Senate Commerce Committee will produce its own NASA authorization bill. The House and Senate bills must be reconciled before a final bill can come to a vote in both chambers.

Then there is the matter of appropriations. House and Senate appropriations committees may or may not consider this $10 million for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Leaving these words out of the House authorization bill is certainly intentional. But let there be no confusion – the search for technosignatures=SETI. (See below for a discussion of the SETI crowd’s attempt to “rebrand” SETI.)

I’d guess that The Atlantic’s storyis a product of continual lobbying by a core group of SETI scientists – mostly affiliated with the SETI Institute – who have not been able to raise sufficient private funding for their search and are pressing upon NASA’s astrobiology program* to provide funding. Part of the continual lobbying is continual courting of the media. I highly doubt (though I could be wrong) that the writer of this story dug down to Section 322 of the House bill to discover the passage about “the search for technosignatures.”

Copycat news outlets repeated The Atlantic’s misleading headline. Here’s an example, from Livescience.com:

“Congress Wants to Spend $10 Million to Search for Aliens and Texas Is to Thank.” The reference to Texas is due to the fact that House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith is from Texas.**

The Fox News web site picked up the Livescience story and slapped its own headline on it: “Alien shocker: Congress wants to spend millions searching for ET.”

Sigh.

Here’s more from The Atlantic’s story: “During a committee hearing for the proposed legislation in April, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democratic congresswoman from Texas, invoked the technosignatures measure as she criticized her Republican colleagues’ for wanting to cut earth- and climate-science funding. ‘Where does all this money go? The majority diverts it to searching for space aliens and to the president’s unexamined initiative to build an orbiting moon base, among other things,’ Johnson said.” Unless congressional appropriators were to add an additional $10 million to NASA’s budget for SETI, fulfilling a congressional direction to spend $10 million on SETI would require taking $10 million from another program. The NASA astrobiology program, funded at around $50 million a year, could ill afford a $10 million hit.

And more from The Atlantic: “As recently as January of this year, Tarter suggested a rebranding for SETI. ‘SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely,’ she said. SETI ‘is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.’”

I have known Jill for decades and admire and respect her. That said, I would call this particular argument specious. To repeat, the search for technosignatures=SETI.

This attempt at “rebranding” reminds me of another such attempt, in the early 1990s, when NASA had a SETI program. (At the time, I worked as a consultant to that program on advocacy planning.) NASA’s listening project, to begin operations in 1992, was called the SETI Microwave Observing Project. In response to some perceived squeamishness among some members and staff of Congress about “extraterrestrial intelligence,” NASA renamed the project the High-Resolution Microwave Survey. The survey (that is, the SETI search) began in October 1992, and Congress cancelled it in 1993.

Recently, SETI advocates have been arguing that advances in the fields of astrobiology and exoplanet science strengthen the rationale for SETI. I disagree. Astrobiology and exoplanet science are producing new findings by leaps and bounds these days, expanding understanding of the origin and evolution of planets and planetary systems, planetary habitability, the origin and evolution of Earth and life on Earth, and the possibility of microbial life (past or present) in our solar system.

Advances in astrobiology strengthen the case for life-detection missions to potentially habitable bodies in our solar system. Advances in exoplanet science strengthen the case for ramping up the search for them and better understanding the origins, evolution, and diversity of planets. To my mind, these advances do not strengthen the case for SETI.

The rationale for SETI relies on a stack of assumptions that I find difficult to accept. The assumptions that intelligence elsewhere would evolve like human intelligence, that extraterrestrial “civilizations” would be technological, and that extraterrestrial technologies would be like human technologies are especially hard for me to swallow. We know very little about human intelligence and even less about non-human terrestrial intelligences.

Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging again, about how and why SETI falls outside the domain of NASA’s astrobiology program.

 

* I am a part-time consultant to the NASA astrobiology program on communication issues. No one asked me to write this post.

** Smith, who apparently is quite interested in astrobiology and SETI, has held a series of hearings on the topics in recent years: “Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond,” December 4, 2013; “Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe,” May 21, 2014 (both witnesses at this hearing were SETI scientists); “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade,” September 29, 2015; “Advances in the Search for Life,” April 26, 2017.

 

 

 

Who’s doing what in planetary defense, Part 2

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Credit: foreskills.co.uk

Following up on yesterday’s post about who’s doing what in planetary defense, I want to address a few more related points.

Let’s start with distinguishing between the Luxembourg-based Asteroid Day organization and International Asteroid Day.

At a February 15 press conference (via Google Hangout) held by the Asteroid Day organization on plans for its June 30 Asteroid Day celebrations this year, Asteroid Day cofounder and B612 Foundation president Danica Remy said, “This year will be our second year as the official Asteroid Day.” (B612 is a partner in Asteroid Day.)

This statement is not accurate.

On December 6, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed in resolution A/71/492 that International Asteroid Day (IAD) will be observed annually on 30 June to raise public awareness about the asteroid impact hazard. June 30 is the anniversary of the Tunguska impact over Siberia, Russian Federation, on 30 June 1908. The Tunguska asteroid event was the Earth’s largest asteroid impact in recorded history.”

According to the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA),“International Asteroid Day will encourage reflection on the impact hazard of asteroids and the global work undertaken in this area and facilitated by UNOOSA, including work by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and its Member States, the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group, and the International Asteroid Warning Network. All United Nations Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, other international and regional organizations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organizations and individuals, are invited to observe International Asteroid Day. The UNGA’s decision was made after a proposal by the Association of Space Explorers, which was endorsed by COPUOS.”

(Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart are members of the Association of Space Explorers and the founders of B612.)

In short, the U.N. has not designated the Asteroid Day organization or its June 30 celebrations as anything “official.”

At the February 15 press conference, Debbie Lewis, a member of Asteroid Day’s “expert panel,” pushed the need for international collaboration and cooperation. She did not mention the international collaboration and cooperation in finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids and planning for planetary defense that has already been taking place, for some years. She did not mention, among other things, the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG), which have been at work since 2013.

Press conference moderator Scott Manley stated that “we” are planning to demonstrate the kinetic impact method for deflecting an asteroid off its orbital path. Again, see yesterday’s for information on who is actually working on this demonstration. (It’s not B612.)

In an email message dated February 15, B612’s Remy wrote, “At B612, we are building the tools to find and track asteroids. We are developing a 3-D dynamical map of the inner solar system and the millions of asteroids we know are out there but have yet to discover.” See yesterday’s post for an explanation of who is doing this work. (Again, it’s not B612).

In a March 2017 email newsletter, Remy reported on “a few milestones already achieved this year.”

Here they are. But whose milestones were they? By whom were they “achieved”?

First was the National Near Earth Object Preparedness Strategy issued by the White House National Science and Technology Council in December 2016. As far as I know, neither B612 nor Asteroid Day played a role in developing this strategy. Itwas the product of hard work by members of the Interagency Working Group (IWG) for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN), which included some of my colleagues at NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For Remy’s next milestone, she reported, “There has been a noticeable shift in the attitude towards asteroids and planetary defense brought on by increased awareness of NEOs and the risks they present.  B612, we believe, has played a vital role in this increased awareness both through our years of hard work and, more recently, its leading role as a founding partner of Asteroid Day.”

She’s entitled to her opinion, but in my humble opinion, “increased awareness” of NEOs and impact risks” is due at least as much (if not more) to the communication efforts of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) and the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness-NEO Coordination Centre NEO Coordination Centre, IAWN and SMPAG activities, and many individual experts in the global small-bodies community.

“Also in our advocacy agenda,” wrote Remy, “is urging the new [U.S.] administration to consider a directed program for an asteroid hunting infrared space telescope not only for its scientific value, but for its direct application in the arenas of defense and homeland security. While you heard from us in January that the NEOCam was not selected for full funding in the Discovery process through NASA, a directed mission would be ideal when considering NEOCam’s broader area of impact.” Again, see yesterday’s blog post for the facts about NEOCam. NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group has advocated strongly and repeatedly for NASA funding of NEOCam.

Remy likes to describe B612 as “asteroid central.” From where I stand, there is no asteroid central. The work of finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids and informing citizens and decision makers about the asteroid impact hazard is a global, networked enterprise, involving researchers and others in the eastern, western, northern and southern hemispheres. It is the reason why NASA’s PDCO has the word “coordination” in its name. If I had to identify some “central” nodes in the network, they would be the Minor Planet Center, the International Asteroid Warning Network, the PDCO, JPL’s CNEOS, and ESA’s NEO program and NEODys system. These entities are, in my opinion, the most up-to-date and reliable sources of information on NEO observations and impact hazards.

I should note that I myself, as well as NASA colleagues, have communicated with Remy about my concerns. (So have NASA colleagues.) That’s all we can do: try to keep the record straight, and give credit where credit is due.

Who’s doing what in planetary defense: the facts

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In the fiscal year 2019 NASA budget request now before Congress, planetary defense is elevated to its own budget line – meaning that it will become a program in its own right, like, say, the Mars exploration program, encompassing research, technology development, and missions.

This budget request for planetary defense, if approved (and right now there’s no good reason to think that it won’t), will triple the program’s budget to $150 million, enabling NASA to go ahead with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), a small-scale space mission that will demonstrate the kinetic-impact technique of changing the motion of an asteroid in space and to at least partially fund continued development of the Near Earth Object Camera mission (NEOCam), which would be the first space-based dedicated NEO survey telescope.

(NEOCam is in what NASA calls “extended-Phase-A” development, meaning that the NEOCam team is completing concept and technology development. If NEOCam is approved to proceed to phase B, the team will proceed with preliminary design and technology completion.)

(Full disclosure: I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. No one asked me to write this post.)

For the past 20 years, NASA has been managing its NEO observations program as a research and analysis program. The program operated on a budget of a few million dollars a year from fiscal year 1998 through fiscal year 2010, at which point the program budget was about $4 million. In 2010, the Obama administration requested, and Congress authorized in 2012, $20.4 million for an expanded program. The program was again expanded in fiscal year 2014, with a budget of $40 million and again in 2016 to $50 million. (This information is available on NASA’s planetary defense web site, for which I composed the content.)

In January 2016, NASA established a Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) that encompasses the NEO observations program. The PDCO was established in recognition of the need for increased staff to handle the growing number of research projects that the rising budget enabled. With increased budget and staffing, the community of researchers supported by the PDCO/NEO observations program have been doing great work, which I heard about at a NEO program review early this year and will blog about later.

Which brings me to a continuing concern: giving credit where credit is due.

I’ve blogged about the activities of the Luxembourg-based Asteroid Day organization and the B612 Foundation (a partner in Asteroid Day) before. Now I’m back at it again.

Over the past couple of years, the Asteroid Day team has greatly improved its efforts to provide timely and accurate information to the public about asteroids and asteroid impact hazards, showcasing or otherwise drawing upon the expertise of the people who are actually doing the work. (I’ll be keeping an eye on the publicity build-up to Asteroid Day 2018 on June 20.)

B612? Not so much. So today I’ll focus on B612, whichis in a perpetual fund-raising mode* and is aggressively publicity-oriented.

My issue with B612 and its stream of communications putting out the message that it is working toward protecting Earth from asteroid impacts is that not only is B612 not doing the work – others are, others who are not so inclined to toot their own horns – but also B612 tends to neglect citing all the work that others are or have been doing. Give credit where credit is due.

B612 continues to describe itself as “an organization that works towards protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts and informing and forwarding world-wide decision-making on planetary defense issues.”

Actually, the international community of small-bodies researchers and the government officials who are managing the programs that fund small-bodies research are doing the work of preparing to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.

B612 says it “provides a non-governmental voice on the risks, options, and implications of asteroid data while advancing the technical means by which that data is acquired.”

Many small-bodies researchers, in the United States and elsewhere, are adding non-governmental voices to the public discourse “on the risks, options, and implications of asteroid data” (plenty of governmental voices are providing expert assessments as well) “while advancing the technical means by which that data is acquired.” It is primarily government agencies that are providing the funding to advance the technical means by which data are acquired.

B612 says, “We work to make interpretation of asteroid data open and accessible, and we serve as an informed source for an international community of policy makers and scientists who can best help to achieve these goals.”

The global community of small-bodies researchers and the government agencies that fund their work – primarily (but not exclusively) NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) – have already invested years worth of time and effort into making interpretation of asteroid data open and accessible – see this web page for a long list of links to programs and organizations that provide open access to asteroid data and information. These people, who are actually doing the work, serve as “informed sources.”

In 2017, B612 announced it was forming an Asteroid Institute, a virtual research organization. According to B612, “The vision of the Asteroid Institute is to be the international center of excellence collaboration on the discovery and deflection of asteroids as well as an incubator [of] technologies. Current major projects within the Institute include…ADAM, an open source cloud-based platform for asteroid data analysis mapping…. A key focus is the creation of a dynamic map of the inner solar system…a critical resource for planetary defense, while contributing to our understanding origins of our Solar System and future space exploration.”

In its 2017 “progress report,” B612 noted that such a dynamical map “requires two things — multiple observations of the positions of each object over a long period of time, and the ability to calculate the future locations of those objects using the laws of orbital mechanics.”

I must note that researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and elsewhere are already developing the dynamical maps that B612 claims are needed. See this page for information on the work of JPL’s solar system dynamics group, and especially keep an eye out for the work of JPL’s Marina Brozovic on dynamical mapping of asteroids. And researchers funded by NASA and other space agencies – not B612 or the Asteroid Institute – are the ones who are, and have been for some time, making multiple observations of asteroids and calculating their future orbital paths. The Minor Planet Center, JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS– funded by NASA), and the European Space Agency’s NEO Coordination Centreare among organizations that collect, analyze, and archive data collected by asteroid observers all over the world; predict future asteroid orbits; and make all of this information publicly available in a timely manner.

For example, the Minor Planet Center (MPC), funded by NASA’s PDCO, maintains a free and open database of asteroid observations. The MPC is “responsible for the efficient collection, computation, checking and dissemination of astrometric observations and orbits for minor planets and comets.” The center is globally recognized as a dependable, accurate, and comprehensive source of information on asteroid observations.

As to the tools B612 claims are needed to protect Earth from asteroid impacts – we all like to have new tools, but if existing tools do the trick, why not use them?

CNEOS has developed an excellent set of tools for NEO observers that are all publicly available online. Take, for example, the HORIZONS tool, which “provides access to key solar system data and flexible production of highly accurate ephemerides** for solar system objects (755605 asteroids, 3512 comets, 178 planetary satellites, 8 planets, the Sun, etc.). CNEOS’s  Sentry Earth impact monitoring system isa highly automated collision monitoring system that continually scans the most current asteroid catalog for possibilities of future impact with Earth over the next 100 years.

CNEOS’s ScoutNEO hazard assessment system “provides trajectory analysis and hazard assessment for recently detected objects listed on the MPC’s near-Earth object confirmation page.

B612 also claims it aims to “develop tools for analyzing and assessing asteroid deflection scenarios.” This work, too, is already being done, by others.

NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have already conducted three “tabletop” exercises to play out realistic (though fictional) asteroid-impact/disaster-planning scenarios. (I’ve participated in all three. I can attest to the fact that they are, indeed, realistic.) NASA and FEMA will continue to conduct these exercises on a regular basis. Reports on these first three exercises are available on this page.  In addition, similar exercises have been conducted at the last threebiennial planetary defense conferences (2013, 2015, 2017), organized under the auspices of the International Academy of Astronautics. (I participated in 2013 and 2015.) A new tabletop exercise will be part of the program at the upcoming 2019IAA planetary defense conference.

In addition, CNEOS offers a NEO deflection application– “a web-based interactive tool produced in collaboration with the Aerospace Corporation [that] is designed to provide insight into the problem of deflecting a threatening asteroid using impulsive asteroid deflection, with special emphasis on using a Kinetic Impactor (KI) mission.”

Finally, I’ll address a December 5, 2017, press release from B612 touting the fact that its Asteroid Institute had submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journalabout the first detected interstellar asteroid, ‘Oumuamua. According to this release, “Within days of the announcement by NASA’s Minor Planet Center [the MPC is funded by NASA but operates under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union] of the discovery of the first-ever interstellar object, ‘Oumuamua, B612’s new Asteroid Institute began a collaborative effort that led to significant analysis about the discovery.” This press release – about a submitted, not published, paper – made no mention of the first, already published, peer-reviewed paper on the detection and study of ‘Oumuamua, which appeared online in the journal Nature on November 20, 2017. This excellent paper, authored by Karen Meech and 17 coauthors, remains the definitive scientific report on the discovery of ‘Oumuamua.

The Asteroid Institute paper (available at arxiv.org) does list the Meech et al paper as a reference. However, the press release – which does not mention it – could lead a reader to assume that the Asteroid Institute was first to report on this discovery.

I have to conclude, based on the evidence I’ve examined, that the principals of B612 are content to convey (perhaps intent on conveying?) the impression that important work already being done, by others – finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids; predicting their future orbits; identifying asteroid impact risks; and developing technologies for planetary defense – is not being done, and will be done by B612. B612’s relentless drive for donations likely has something to do with conveying such a misimpression – at best, an incomplete picture of what’s going on in the fields of asteroid science and planetary defense.

More on this topic later, stay tuned.

*B612’s annual financial reports to the Internal Revenue Service (Form 990s) are available up to 2016 from Pro Publica’s Nonprofit Explorer. In 2015, B612 reported $1.2 million in expenses and $741,402 in revenue, leaving it with a net income of minus $472,486.

** Ephemeris data show the positions of celestial bodies – asteroids, for example – on a number of dates in a regular sequence.

How to be a space billionaire

environmental-watch.com

Credit: environmental-watch.com

I realized last week that I hadn’t posted on my blog since December. It’s not for lack of interesting material. It’s just that so much of it is disturbing (White House, Congress, National Space Council, etc.) Here’s today’s post (and I hope to process a pile of notes for other posts over the next couple of months).

The redoubtable biographer Walter Isaacson* has composed a glowing review of two new books for the New York Times about the so-called “commercial” space race. The books are The Space Barons, by Washington Postreporter Christian Davenport,** who has provided much breathless coverage of this alleged new “commercial” space race for the paper; and Rocket Billionaires, by Tim Fernholtz, a reporter for Quartz.

In his review,*** Isaacson heaps further praise on Elon Musk – founder and head of SpaceX – and Jeff Bezos – founder and head of Blue Origin – two billionaires who have long been lionized by the media for being “innovative” and, let’s face it, filthy rich. (He liked the books, too.)

Isaacson writes of SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s bids to use rocket launch facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center: “Musk won the bidding for Launch Pad 39A…Bezos bought the nearby Launch Complex 36…. The transfer of these hallowed pads represented, both symbolically and in practice, John F. Kennedy’s torch of space exploration being passed from government to the private sector — from a once-glorious but now sclerotic federal agency to a new breed of boyish billionaires who embodied the daring passion and imagination of history’s great pioneers, adventurers and innovators.”

That prose seems rather over the top… (but you can read the review and decide for yourself).

And, by the way, SpaceX and Blue Origin have leased, not bought, those NASA launch facilities. I don’t know how NASA calculated the value of these leases. I doubt, though, skeptic that I am, that their values fully account for the taxpayers’ investment in building and maintaining these facilities over the years.

It bothers me that while the mainstream media typically frame Musk and Bezos as heroic rocketeers who are changing the face of the aerospace industry, they have paid little attention to the value of government support they have obtained to develop their rocket companies. Both Musk and Bezos are avowed libertarians. It doesn’t seem very libertarian to go after government support. Then again, it’s their companies, not themselves, that are going after all the support they can get.

Like many rocket companies before them, SpaceX and Blue Origin have been building their businesses with a combination of direct and indirect government subsidies, government contracts, and “economic incentives” from state and local governments. (It would be an interesting project for an investigative reporter to try to tally up all the taxpayer money and in-kind contributions these companies have received from various government entities and then tally up what the taxpayers are receiving in return.)

Musk became a wealthy man in 2002 when he and his cofounders sold their company PayPal for $1.5 billion. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 (when he was only a mere multimillionaire, not a billionaire). In October 2011, Forbes estimated that Musk was worth $680 million. Musk landed on the Forbes Billionaires List in 2012 with a net worth of $2 billion. Forbes reportedin 2012 that Musk owned two thirds of SpaceX. Musk’s current net worth is $19.3 billion.

SpaceX was NASA’s fourth-largest contractor in fiscal year 2017 and has been on the list of top 100 federal government contractors for several years. (See below for more details.)

As far as anyone can tell, Jeff Bezos is the sole owner of his rocket company, Blue Origin, which he founded in 2000. According to C/net News, Bezos “watched his personal wealth shrink by 78 percent, from $8.9 billion to $1.9 billion,” in 2000.As of yesterday, hisnet worth was $126.5 billion.

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), has looked into the agency’s use of so-called Space Act agreements (SAAs) to support space projects such as the SpaceX and Blue Origin launch vehicles (“NASA’s Use of Space Act Agreements,” audit report, June 5, 2014). SAAs are not subject to Federal Acquisition Regulations.

According to the OIG, “The number of SAAs increased by more than 29 percent between fiscal years (FY) 2008 and 2012…. NASA’s use of funded SAAs is a relatively recent occurrence and to date most funded SAAs have related to the Agency’s efforts to develop commercial spacecraft capable of transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station…. Since 2006, NASA has entered into 15 funded SAAs with eight private companies ranging in value from $1.4 million to $480 million, with a total value of more than $2.2 billion.”

NASA awarded SpaceX a funded SAA valued at $396 million in 2006 and awarded Orbital Sciences Corp. a funded SAA valued at $288 million in 2008 “to facilitate U.S. private industry demonstration of cargo and crew space transportation capabilities.” SpaceX got two more funded SAAs worth $75 million (2011) and $460 million (2012) to further develop its commercial crew capabilities.

According to a Wikipedia entry on Blue Origin, NASA awarded the company $3.7 million in funding in 2009 by means of a SAA to develop “concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations.” In April 2011, NASA granted Blue Origin another $22 million for continued work on those concepts.

Boeing got three funded SAAs to develop its commercial crew capabilities – for $18 million (2010), $112.9 million (2011), and $480 million (2012). Boeing’s profits (a.k.a. net earnings) for 2012 totaled $3.9 billion.

Florida Today reported on December 19, 2017, that the Brevard County board of commissioners “approved a plan that would allow the county to borrow money to pay for an $8 million economic incentive to rocket manufacturer Blue Origin…. The cash grant to the company was approved in 2015 by the County Commission and the North Brevard Economic Development Zone board.”

Forbes reported April 27that Bezos – “the world’s richest man and only centibillionaire, got $9 billion richer in two days.” By the end of that day, his net worth totaled $130.2 billion. Why should his rocket company need any sort of taxpayer assistance whatsoever?

According to Subsidy Tracker, SpaceX has received $3 million in state and local government subsidies and $106 million in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance (not including repayments). Blue Origin does not appear to be in the Subsidy Tracker database. If you have the stomach for it, check out Subsidy Tracker’s long list of state and local government subsidies that Amazon has received over the past 15 years or so.

The Austin American-Statesmanreported on January 29, 2018, that SpaceX was seeking an additional $5 million in funding from the state of Texas to build a spaceport there: “About $15.3 million in state funding already has been set aside for SpaceX’s planned Boca Chica [TX] spaceport, but only about $3 million has been disbursed so far — and SpaceX has returned a small portion because it has fallen

Now, back to Isaacson’s book review… In it, he claims that Musk’s “SpaceX venture had become the first private rocket company to launch into orbit with a payload.” This claim is not accurate. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are private companies – that is, for-profit corporations – that have been launching payloads for decades. Orbital Sciences Corp. (now a part of Orbital ATK) began launching its Pegasus rocket in 1990 – just before it transitioned from a privately held commercial business to a publicly traded commercial business.

Among NASA’s top 20 contractors for fiscal year 2017 were Boeing (#2, $2 billion), Lockheed Martin (#3, $1.4 billion), SpaceX (#4, $977 million), and Orbital ATK (#5, $738 million). SpaceX was #57 on the list of top 100 federal-government contractors for 2017. Lockheed Martin was #1 on this list, Boeing #2.

 

* Isaacson has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo DaVinci. He also is the author of The Innovators.

** Christian Davenport works for the Washington Postand has written a book about Jeff Bezos and other “space barons.” Bezos owns the Washington Post.

*** The review appeared online April 24 and in the print New York Times Book ReviewApril 29.

Moon, Mars, billionaires: what’s going on?

moon

Credit: howstuffworks.com

On Forbes.com, in an opinion piece titled “Sorry America, We’re Not Going Back To The Moon,” astrophysicist Ethan Siegel comments on the current administration’s assertion that the U.S. will return people to the Moon.

“Trump,” Siegel writes, “made a promise that should sound familiar to American citizens, as many incoming presidents (including Obama and both Bushes) have made similar plans and proclamations. Like all plans, to bring this one to fruition will require a tremendous investment of resources: in people, in equipment and facilities, in research and development, and in terms of money as well. With no plans for adequate, additional funding to support these ambitions, these dreams will simply evaporate, as they have so many times before.”

I agree. Since I joined the space community in 1983, I’ve been watching various iterations of “the Moon-Mars thing” come and go. It’ll cost too much, and the rationale for pursuing these goals is not compelling enough to justify the cost.

Meanwhile, in an article titled “Billionaires May Be the Future of Space Policy. Here’s What They Want: Space nations, UFOs, and Mars colonies are on the wish list,” Foreign Policy staff writer Emily Tamkin reports, “a number of private individuals of great wealth are charting the future of space policy, whether through money or influence….” She cites billionaires Igor Ashurbeyli (net worth unknown) and his wacky idea to create a “space nation” called Asgardia, Elon Musk (net worth $20+ billion) and his disturbing focus on colonizing Mars, Yuri Milner ($3.5 billion) and his fringe-y Breakthrough Starshot and Breakthrough Listen initiatives.

And there are more. For example, there’s Jeff Bezos (net worth $98 billion, give or take) – the richest man in the world, depending on what day it is (his net worth depends on the price of stock in Amazon). The Scotland Herald, in an August report on “The world’s weirdest billionaires,” quoted Bezos as saying, “People will visit Mars, they will settle Mars, and we should because it’s cool.”

(Because it’s cool? Oy vey….)

And then there’s Richard Branson ($5 billion), who, along with Bezos, intends to make money off of space tourism (which I view as “joy rides for the ultra-rich”). Tamkin reports that Branson said in October on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he and Bezos “are more interested in how we can use space to benefit the Earth.”

Really? How does space tourism benefit the Earth?

Meanwhile, Florida Today reported yesterday that the Brevard County (FL) board of commissioners “approved a plan that would allow the county to borrow money to pay for an $8 million economic incentive to rocket manufacturer Blue Origin…. The cash grant to the company was approved in 2015 by the County Commission and the North Brevard Economic Development Zone board.”

Wow. A county government is going to borrow money in order to give it to a billionaire. Why would a businessman worth $98 billion need an $8 million “incentive” to do business in Brevard County?

Branson’s and Musk’s space enterprises have also benefited from local, state, and federal “incentives” and other subsidies.

Discuss.