Mars visions, then and now

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Credit: jpl.nasa.gov

In my continual efforts to tame the paper jungle in my office, I’ve come across my notes from a “robotic and human exploration of Mars strategic roadmap committee meeting,” held February 8-10, 2005, at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Given that yet another “humans to Mars summit” took place last week in Washington, D.C., I thought I’d convey a few highlights of discussion at the 2005 meeting.

Recall that it was on January 14, 2004, when then-President George W. Bush announced his “vision” for space exploration, a plan to “extend a human presence across the solar system.” The goal was to put people on the Moon by 2020 “as the launching point for missions beyond.” At the time, Sean O’Keefe was NASA administrator. Oddly (it seems odd to me, anyway), O’Keefe is speaking today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on U.S. strategy for civil and military space (O’Keefe is now a “distinguished senior advisor” at CSIS.)

Back to 2005 – here are some of the findings of the roadmap committee – which involved Michael Meyer of the NASA headquarters Mars exploration program office (he’s still there) and Firouz Naderi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s solar system exploration directorate (he’s still there, see below):

  • Human Mars exploration design reference mission development “must be re-initiated immediately. Two to three years will be required for preliminary design development. (The estimate at that time was that this mission would require the launch of 3-8 International Space Station (ISS) masses to low Earth orbit. According to NASA, the ISS weighs about 925,000 pounds, equivalent to the mass of about 320 automobiles.)
  • Use the ISS as a test bed for Mars exploration.
  • Mars sample return (MSR) is a capstone human exploration precursor mission. It could set the stage for a round-trip human exploration mission…”minus environmental control and life support systems and biology and the scale problem.”
    • “One or more MSR missions must precede human exploration.” (The thinking then was that if we can’t execute an MSR mission, then we certainly can’t execute a human mission.)

In 2005, nuclear-fission-powered propulsion was being considered for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle that would have to be built to get people beyond LEO. (The nuclear option fell by the wayside, thank goodness.) The assumption then was that the Mars Science Laboratory would launch in 2009 (it went up in 2011), to be followed by an MSR mission during the next decade and a large astrobiology field laboratory after that.

There was discussion at the 2005 meeting about the hazard of radiation exposure for a human mission to Mars. This discussion continues. The Wall St. Journal reported earlier this month on new research results showing “that cosmic rays during an interplanetary voyage could cause subtle brain damage, leaving astronauts confused, forgetful and slow to react to the unexpected.”

Back to the present: as Space News reported in a story about last week’s gathering of humans-to-Mars advocates, “While NASA argues there is a growing consensus that the agency’s long-term human spaceflight goal should be landing people on Mars, a recent conference suggested there is less agreement about exactly how NASA should accomplish that goal.” Space.com covered last week’s gathering, too, reporting that JPL’s Firouz Naderi (see above) called for “an incremental, multiple-mission approach that envisions getting astronauts to Phobos by 2033, then down to the Martian surface by 2039.” This approach could make humans-to-Mars “technologically and economically feasible,” he said.

The current administration has decided that sending astronauts to an asteroid will precede sending humans to Mars (or back to the Moon, or anyplace else.) Mars sample return, identified by the space science community for decades as a top priority in planetary exploration, remains too expensive to undertake. (Advocates will undoubtedly argue with me about this point, but the reality today is that no organization or group of organizations has taken on this challenge.)

So, at the same time that I am bothered by the very idea of sending people to Mars, with the intent of settling the planet, I am not too bothered, as I think a human mission to Mars is much further off into the future than advocates believe it is. In the United States, the world’s top spender on space exploration, the 2016 presidential election will bring a transition that is as likely as not to include new national goals in space. And who knows what they’ll be?

Stay tuned.

What to do about hazardous asteroids: many ideas…

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Credit: esa.int

At the 4th international Planetary Defense Conference (April 13-17, Frascati, Italy), proposals were aired for ground-and space-based systems designed to detect asteroids that pose a risk of Earth impact and different methods of deflecting or destroying asteroids found to be on an impact course with Earth.

For a summary of PDC presentations on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposed space-based near-Earth object survey telescope, called NEOCAM; the B612 Foundation’s proposed Sentinel space-based NEO survey telescope; and a comparative analysis of the two proposals conducted at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, see this report in Space News. You can also watch the archived webcast of PDC talks by Amy Mainzer/NEOCAM, Hal Reitsema/Sentinel, and Bhavya Lal/Science and Technology Policy Institute (these three talks start at about 45:00).

A paper published by the NEOCAM team reports on the team’s simulations of NEOCAM operations. See my blog post of February 23 for details. For information on Sentinel, see this abstract (undated), posted in the B612 Foundation’s online newsroom under “scientific papers.”

As Reitsema explained in his PDC talk, the Sentinel project has now coupled itself with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST http://www.lsst.org/lsst/ ) project, due to come on line in 2022 (if work stays on schedule).

On an LSST “frequently asked questions” page hosted by the University of Washington, this information is offered on LSST’s schedule and cost:

The LSST is scheduled for first engineering light in 2014 and for early science operations beginning in 2015. Full science operations will begin in 2016. [Calendar years] The LSST project will cost $390M through first light, including all construction, hardware, software, data management, and a 30% contingency. [2006 $] This work-based cost estimate has remained constant within 15% since the beginning of the project phase in 2003. Significant milestones have already been reached, including the casting of the primary/tertiary mirror. The LSST survey will last for ten years.”

This information is out of date.

The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy are the primary sponsors of the project. In July 2012, NSF reported that LSST would cost about $665 million. In March of this year, LSST Director Steve Kahn reported to the Space Studies Board’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics that LSST would cost $681 million, with construction scheduled to be complete by September 30, 2022, and full science operations planned to begin in 2023. LSST operating costs are estimated at $37 million a year (2013 U.S. dollars) over a 10-year period.

On to asteroid impact “mitigation” ideas – I put mitigation in quote marks because some of my colleagues have questioned the labeling of asteroid deflection or destruction concepts as impact mitigation options. Impact mitigation is more a matter of disaster planning and response, in the event that an Earth impact should occur….

There’s a lot yet to be learned about hitting or moving an asteroid. (And it should be noted that most of what’s known about asteroid deflection is a product of computer modeling. Keith Holsapple of the University of Washington observed at the conference that modeling results can be iffy.) One message I took home from PDC 2015 is that there’s no all-purpose asteroid deflection approach. Every asteroid is different, and every close approach and impact hazard is different, so deflection options will have to be developed case by case.

PDC 2015 offered considerable discussion of “the nuclear option” – that is, using nuclear “devices” to disrupt or destroy an asteroid on a certain impact course with Earth. A contingent from the Department of Energy weapons labs (Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia), along with university researchers and NASA specialists, offered a range of perspectives on the nuclear option as well as kinetic-impactor concepts. As Paul Miller of Lawrence Livermore National Lab noted, “composition plays a central role in how an asteroid reacts to a kinetic impactor or nuclear deflection.” Dan Scheeres of the University of Colorado raised the question of how shape and topography might affect a kinetic deflection attempt. Laser ablation or nuclear blasts are sensitive to surface topography. Ion beam deflection is not affected by these factors, as ions implant into the surface and do not “reflect,” he said. Kirsten Howley of Livermore addressed the importance of the composition of the asteroid and the spectrum of the device in the case of a stand-off (off-surface) nuclear deflection attempt.

Dave Dearborn of Livermore said the kinetic impactor option looks like a good choice when the asteroid is small and the impact warning time is long. In the case of a large asteroid and a short warning time, the stand-off nuclear option might be the only viable option, he said. Galen Gisler of Los Alamos National Lab agreed with Dearborn, adding that for small asteroids, “kinetic impact is surprisingly effective and would be even more effective for volatile-rich bodies.”

“Existing devices can deflect essentially all NEOs,” Dearborn noted, so there’s no need to develop new nuclear devices for planetary defense. He also noted that nuclear warheads are not an option for planetary defense as they are designed to withstand reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Philip Lubin of the University of California-Santa Barbara said directed-energy deflection is a very practical option. “I think it’s ridiculous not to have planetary defense [systems] pre-deployed,” he asserted. Young people “enjoy blowing up everything they can,” he said, so why not place directed-energy deflection systems in space for planetary defense and, while they’re waiting for an asteroid target, let them be used to blow up space debris?

Brent Barbee of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center reported on a study being led by Iowa State University’s Asteroid Deflection Research Center of suborbital asteroid interception and fragmentation for very-short-warning-time impact scenarios. This concept involves a high-altitude interception by a Minuteman III missile.

Bob Weaver of Los Alamos described a mission concept for a hypervelocity asteroid impact vehicle (HAIV) to intercept NEOs as small as 50 meters. This concept involves a two-body spacecraft, with one performing a subsurface nuclear explosive detonation (that is, contact versus stand-off) within 10 meters of the NEO center. Modeling shows that a low-density impactor would not go deep enough. This “leading impactor” needs to be redesigned to be a “penetrator.” Bong Wie of Iowa State’s Asteroid Deflection Research Center said he is seeking funding to develop an emergency asteroid defense project, involving a non-nuclear multiple kinetic impactor vehicle that would vaporize or pulverize or vaporize 50-150 meter objects.   “A lot of people would not like to have nuclear testing in space,” he said.

Brian Kaplinger of the Florida Institute of Technology raised the possibility of errors in modeling NEO orbits, composition, porosity, and shape, noting that “not all dependencies can be adequately resolved in any simulation.”

There were many more talks at PDC 2015. I offer just a few highlights. While talks at the conference revealed a lot of progress on planetary defense mission concepts and designs since PDC 2013, it appears that the nearest-term possibility for a planetary defense demonstration mission might be the NASA-ESA Asteroid Impact Deflection and Assessment project (AIDA) – including NASA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) demonstration and ESA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission concept study, begun in 2011, has just proceeded to Phase A this year, with a proposed launch date of 2022.

The current schedule for the robotic segment of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – which will collect a multi-ton boulder from the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and include a demonstration of the “enhanced gravity tractor” method for planetary defense – calls for a launch in 2020, asteroid rendezvous in 2022, and planetary defense demonstration in 2023. This schedule is contingent on many factors, perhaps the most important one being whether ARM survives the annual budget process over the next few years and a presidential transition in 2017.

Stay tuned.

Planetary defense: it’s a global thing

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Credit: newscentralexsees.com

I spent the week of April 13-17 in Frascati, Italy, attending the 4th international Planetary Defense Conference (PDC) – a biennial gathering of experts concerned with protecting Earth from future asteroid impacts. Here I’ll offer some highlights of the week’s discussions.

First, the good news: of the more than 12,000 known near-Earth objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets predicted to come within 0.3 astronomical units (28 million miles/45 million kilometers) of Earth on a future orbit around the Sun – none pose a risk of impact with Earth (See the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s NEO impact risk table). Of these 12,000 NEOs, 1,574 are currently deemed “potentially hazardous” – predicted to come within 0.05 AU (4.65 million mi./7.5 million km) of Earth on a future orbit. These numbers will change, of course as new NEOs are found and further observations of known objects improve the accuracy of predictions of future orbital movements.

Space agency officials from around the world reported at the PDC on the status of their plans for planetary defense – ranging from work with emergency management agencies in case of an unavoidable asteroid impact with Earth to plans for launching multiple spacecraft to an asteroid on an impact course with Earth to deflect it off its orbital path toward us. Collaboration and coordination is improving among the various agencies, programs, and projects focused on finding, tracking, and characterizing NEOs and identifying those that are potentially hazardous to Earth, in part due to the formation of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN). NASA’s NEO Observations Program, the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness Programme-NEO Segment, and the NEO Dynamic Site (NEODyS), among others, are participating in IAWN.

NASA’s NEO Observations Program* head Lindley Johnson said the NASA program’s updated program objective is to discover at least 90 percent of NEOs larger than 140 meters “as soon as possible.” Primary assets supported by NASA to find and track NEOS are the Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System) facility in Hawaii, the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, and NASA’s space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope. Primary assets supported by NASA to characterize NEOs are the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the Goldstone station of NASA’s Deep Space Network, the Infrared Telescope Facility, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The NASA program currently has an annual budget of $40 million. The President’s budget request for the program in fiscal year 2016 is $50 million.

Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the NEO segment of the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme –NEO Segment , said SSA Programme funding for 2013-2016 is 50 million euro. (The SSA Programme is responsible for space weather and space debris as well as for NEO observations.) One of ESA’s new NEO projects is NEOSTel. The agency has funded detailed design work for this automated, ground-based “fly-eye” telescope system to survey the sky for NEOs. Completion of the project, which ultimately will include four telescopes, will cost about 10 million euro, Drolshagen said.

Meanwhile, ESA’s NEO Coordination Centre is working on more closely integrating the European Asteroid Research Network (EARN) and the NEO Dynamic Site (NEODyS) with its own database, he noted. EARN maintains an online database of physical and dynamical properties of NEOs. According to the NEODyS web site, the NEO segment of ESA’s SSA Programme will “progressively assume larger responsibility for the operations of NEODyS…. The NEODyS service is expected to be federated, together with others including the Spaceguard Central Node and the EARN Asteroid Database, in a new comprehensive SSA-NEO information service.”

Boris Shustov of the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences reported on Russian assets involved in NEO observations. Telescopes in the International Scientific Optical Network (managed by the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics at the Russian Academy of Sciences) devote some time to NEO observations. Next year, a new wide-angle 1.6 meter telescope, AZT-33VM, located at the boundary of Mongolia, will see first light. This telescope will be suited to detecting large (greater than 50 meters) distant asteroids.

Alan Harris, European Union coordinator for the EU’s NEOshield Project, reported on the start-up of NEOshield-2. NEOShield was set up to carry out a detailed analysis of open questions relating to realistic options for preventing NEO impacts with Earth. This March, work began on NEOshield-2. The EU granted $4 million to NEOshield. It has granted $6 million to NEOshield-2, for work to September 2017.

Makoto Yoshikawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reported on the creation of the Asia-Pacific Asteroid Observation Network. Current members include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Macau, Indonesia, Mongolia, Taiwan, and China.

NASA, ESA, JAXA, and others indicated they would like to build their own space-based NEO survey telescopes – if they had the budget for it. None do.

Stay tuned for PDC 2015, Part 2 – in which I will discuss reports from two teams working on concepts for a space-based NEO survey telescope.

* My work is funded in part by the NEO Observations Program. However, no one at NASA asked me to write this blog post.

More on manifest destiny

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Credit: giphy.com

A recent tweet by Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla, citing my blog post of July 24, 2013, “The frontier metaphor: still worrisome” – appears to have stirred up the hornets’ nest of space libertarians. This week I’ve received a stream of mostly-anonymous comments on Twitter and on my blog posts. They have all been of the same ilk – dismissive, condescending, sometimes plain old rude. (I give credit to my old friend Rand Simberg for not hiding behind anonymity.)

Really, gentlemen….

I typically do not post anonymous comments on my blog. I don’t blog anonymously. I’m happy to engage in dialogue with people of different opinions. For productive dialogue to occur, participants need to know at least a little bit about each other. I will not respond to specific insults, as they are of course intended to put me on the defensive. I have no need to go there….

As my faithful readers will know, for more than a decade I have been engaged in an ongoing project of research, analysis, and critique of the ideology of space exploration, in particular its embrace of the frontier metaphor and the idea of manifest destiny. As a U.S. citizen, I am especially interested in how and why this ideology has long been embedded in U.S. space policy and whether and how it serves the public interest.

The latest book I’ve been reading about the history of the idea of manifest destiny and its embrace by U.S. policy makers digs deep into the religious roots of this belief.

In Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (1995), historian Anders Stephanson’s premise is that the idea of “manifest destiny is of signal importance in the way the United States came to understand itself in the world and still does.” It’s an “institutionally embedded” ideology. Stephanson writes that “The world as God’s ‘manifestation’ and history as predetermined ‘destiny’ had been ideological staples of the strongly providentialist period in England between 1620 and 1660,” the period when English Puritans migrated to North America. The related belief in “right” – that is, that white Europeans had been “chosen by the finger of God to possess (America)” – is at least as old. These beliefs came to underlay a U.S. national narrative of “prophecy, messianism, and historical transcendence.”

If you’d like to refresh your memory about previous blog posts on this subject, you can check out, for starters, “Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again”, February 26, 2015; “Disturbing visions of our future in space” – “Disturbing visions of our future in space”, October 8, 2014; “More on American exceptionalism” – “More on American exceptionalism”, February 13, 2014; and “Private property rights in space: still a bad idea”, November 13, 2013.

I would also recommend my peer-reviewed publications on this subject, such as:

  • “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Lunies, eds., Societal Impacts of Spaceflight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C., 2007 (available free at history.nasa.gov);
  • “Fifty years of NASA and the public: What NASA? What publics?”, pp. 151-182 in S.J. Dick, Ed., NASA’s First 50 Years: Historical Perspectives (NASA SP-2010-4704), NASA History Division, Washington, D.C., 2010. (also available for free at history.nasa.gov); and
  • “Frontier days in space: are they over?”, Space Policy 13(3), August 1997.

I offer this suggestion to the critics of my work: boys, do your homework. I’ve done mine.

Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again

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Credit: fashion-kid.net

Today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on U.S. human exploration goals and commercial space competitiveness takes testimony from six white, male, human-exploration advocates, including three ex-astronauts.

I do not anticipate hearing a diversity of views from this line-up. Welcome to the Republican-controlled 114th Congress. (Update, Feb. 26: Marcia Smith provides a good summary of the hearing.)

Meanwhile, pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers are lining up to promote a space colonization (they call it “settlement,” I call it “colonization”) agenda on Capitol Hill.

I was inclined to ignore their recent noise-making. Then I decided to add another chapter to my ongoing critique of this antiquated ideology.

A “pioneering space declaration” coming out of last week’s invitation-only “pioneering space national summit” claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” (I think they must mean “should be,” and I disagree.)

The National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), two of the organizations behind last week’s summit, announced yesterday that they and several other groups have created an Alliance for Space Development (ASD). Among ASD’s proclaimed objectives for this year is “incorporation of space development and settlement into the NASA Space Act.”

Members of this alliance include the Tea Party in Space, whose mission is “to educate and engage the American people and their elected representatives in applying the core principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets to the rapid and permanent expansion of American civilization into the space frontier, focusing on strategies for privatization, deregulation, and appropriate technology development partnerships between government institutions and the private sector.”

NSS’s “vision” is “people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.”

The Space Frontier Foundation claims its “purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.”

And now more advocacy groups (or should I say Web sites?) are popping up to promote the same agenda. The rhetoric is so familiar (and still disturbing)….

An outfit called the EarthLight Foundation – which offers no information on who or what constitutes the group – has a “vision,” too: “To carry the light of life to places now dark, the seeds of life to places now dead, and the eyes, hands, and minds of humanity to places yet unseen, untouched, and unknown.” Projects of this foundation include an “Endowment for Tomorrow,” an “Up! Space Celebration,” and a “New Worlds Institute.” No information is provided on the first two, um, things.

The New Worlds Institute, which claims to be dedicated to “a future of unlimited possibility and abundance created by the human imagination, powered by the resources of space and made real using principles of democratic free enterprise,” says it plans a New Worlds Conference “about the future, hope and the infinite possibilities offered by an infinite frontier…. In 2045 this world will no longer be the only world we call home.” No information is provided on who or what constitutes this institute.

As I’ve said before,* “Examining the history of space flight advocacy reveals an ideology of space flight that draws deeply on a durable American cultural narrative – a national mythology – of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits. This ideology rests on a number of assumptions, or beliefs, about the role of the United States in the global community, American national character, and the ‘right’ form of political economy.”

The advocacy groups discussed in this post are promoting an outdated ideology as a foundation for national space policy. As a citizen, taxpayer, and policy analyst, I protest. Advocates for space settlement and other forms of exploiting extraterrestrial resources are overwhelmingly white and male. We females constitute 51 percent of the world’s population, and a majority of people on Earth are not “white.” We’ve had no national or international dialogue on goals and objectives for space exploration that could benefit all of humanity (I don’t care what the advocates say, asteroid mining would benefit mining companies, not humanity). Any “dialogues” that the pro-space community may point to have been organized by space advocates.

For decades, U.S. public opinion polling has shown that while a majority of respondents have supported having a space program, a majority has not supported spending more money on it. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center Initiative on Science and Society for the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked (U.S.) respondents “to consider whether the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program is essential or not essential given the relative costs of manned vs. robotic space exploration”: 59 percent agreed that astronauts are essential to the future of the U.S. space program. I must note, however, that this result says nothing about these respondents’ views on colonizing the solar system.

*Linda Billings, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, eds., Societal Impacts of Space Flight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, 2007.

NEO news round-up

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Credit: howtowebinar.com

With an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and a Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) now organized, the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and its Action Team on NEOs (Action Team-14, or AT-14) has deemed its work completed.

AT-14 was established by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2001. In a report on its fifty second session February 2-13 in Vienna, the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) says AT-14 is now dissolved. IAWN and SMPAG – a group established to work on plans for asteroid impact mitigation (a.k.a. planetary defense) missions – will now report directly to the STSC. Both groups were formed under the auspices of the U.N. but operate independently of it. AT-14 recommended that both groups seek permanent observer status with COPUOS.

(As a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program, I have been involved in some IAWN activities.)

In a resolution adopted December 5, the U.N. General Assembly noted “the importance of information-sharing in discovering, monitoring and physically characterizing potentially hazardous near-Earth objects to ensure that all countries, in particular developing countries with limited capacity in predicting and mitigating a near-Earth object impact, are aware of potential threats, emphasizes the need for capacity-building for effective emergency response and disaster management in the event of a near-Earth object impact, and recalls in that regard the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and by the Committee at its fifty-sixth session. The General Assembly also “note[d] with satisfaction that progress on establishing an international asteroid warning network and a space mission planning advisory group to implement the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat would be reported to the Subcommittee at its fifty-second session.”

Meanwhile, following its 12th meeting last month, NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) stressed – as it did in findings from its 11th meeting last summer – the need for a dedicated space-based NEO survey. “A space-based near-Earth object (NEO) survey telescope would be a foundational asset that would most efficiently achieve the goals of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative in the shortest amount of time. Construction and implementation of such an asset should be supported by all three of NASA’s major space exploration directorates and not just by the limited resources of the Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) program within the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Cross directorate support for a space-based asteroid survey is fully consistent with the Asteroid Initiative already established as an agency-wide goal.” SBAG also reiterated concerns “about the limited benefits of ARM [NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission] for advancing asteroid science or furthering planetary defense strategies, and that limits in the current knowledge of near-Earth asteroids contribute to schedule and cost risks.”

NASA had originally planned to announce its selection of option A or option B for the ARM in December. That decision was put on hold, and no one seems to know when it will be announced.

In an op-ed posted by Aviation Week today, space policy analyst Marcia Smith raises some questions about the ARM mission. “ARM is two good ideas kluged together into one bewildering idea that NASA itself seems unable to explain effectively.” Smith notes that one aspect of the ARM “that piques a lot of interest is the idea that ARM will lead to technologies to defend Earth from threatening asteroids (“planetary defense”).  Although that gets a lot of attention, it actually is not an expected outcome of ARM…. NASA needs an Asteroid Deflection Technology Development program, not ARM.”

On a more upbeat note, SBAG notes that this year will be “a banner year for small bodies science,” with missions to explore the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto and comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. “The attention [these missions] will attract gives the small body science community a spectacular opportunity to communicate the value of our work,” SBAG notes in findings from its January meeting. “[W]e must all make an extra effort this year to engage with the public over these exciting missions.”

(Science magazine (December 14) declared the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landing of a probe on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko the top science “breakthrough” or 2014.)

While the NEO community is essentially in agreement that a dedicated space-based NEO survey telescope would be a valuable asset, no one yet has the funding to develop such a mission. The B612 Foundation is attempting to raise private funding for such a telescope – its project is called Sentinel – but apparently has been unsuccessful thus far. The last Sentinel project status update posted on B612’s web site is dated September 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposal to build a Discovery-class NEO survey telescope called NEOCAM (NEO Camera) was not selected for funding the first time around. JPL resubmitted the NEOCAM proposal in response to NASA’s next Discovery call for proposals, and it’s currently under review. (Discovery missions must cost less than $425 million and take no more than three years to develop from mission start to launch.) In April 2013, an infrared sensor being developed for the NEOCAM mission passed a critical design test.

In a paper to be published in the Astronomical Journal (Mainzer et al. 2015 in press), NEOCAM principal investigator Amy Mainzer and her team report on simulations they conducted “to predict the performance of a new space-based telescopic survey operating at thermal infrared wavelengths that seeks to discover and characterize a large fraction of the potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid (NEA) population” – that is, NEOCAM. The team considered two potential architectures for the survey: a telescope located at the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point, and one in a Venus-trailing orbit. Their results “indicate that the Earth-Sun L1 and Venus-trailing surveys achieve similar levels of integral completeness for potentially hazardous asteroids larger than 140 m; placing the telescope in an interior orbit does not yield an improvement in discovery rates.” They report that the L1 survey “slightly outperforms the Venus-trailing survey for PHAs in this [larger than 140 meters] size range.”

“Unlike ground-based surveys, space telescopes at either L1 or Venus-trailing orbits can spend much of their time surveying the region of sky that is in the daytime sky for ground-based observers. Therefore, the ability to perform ‘self follow up’ is essential because ground-based observers cannot be relied upon regularly for the short-term follow up required to determine orbits securely,” they note.

Mainzer et al claim their results “demonstrate that the cost, complexity, and risk associated with sending a survey telescope to a Venus-trailing orbit is unwarranted. While neither survey [architecture] is capable of fulfilling the 2005 Congressional mandate to NASA to find 90% of all near-Earth objects larger than 140 m in diameter by 2020, an advanced space-based survey can make significant progress quickly.”

Finally, as spring approaches (what a nice thought!), we’ll be hearing more about International Asteroid Awareness Day – a.k.a. Asteroid Day. (You can read more about Asteroid Day in one of my earlier posts.) Many of my colleagues in the NEO community are skeptical of one particular “call to action” in a declaration for which Asteroid Day sponsors are seeking signatures – “a rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.” They say it’s a nice idea, but likely impossible to achieve for a number of reasons.

Stay tuned….

John Podesta and UFOs – again…

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Credit: @ETsAndUFOs, twitter.com

On February 13, John Podesta – a senior advisor to presidents Clinton and Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, a D.C. think tank – tweeted:

John Podesta 

‪@Podesta44

  1. Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the ‪#disclosure of the UFO files. ‪#thetruthisstilloutthere cc: ‪@NYTimesDowd

A few media outlets, major and minor, have reported on this tweet – see, for example, an item in the Washington Post.

Podesta reportedly is about to run a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Podesta’s UFO tweet was retweeted 2,075 times as of today. (Podesta also uses @JohnPodesta on Twitter – no mention of UFOs there….) That is, it hasn’t gone viral.

Meanwhile, at MoveOn.org, a petition has been posted to solicit support for UFO “disclosure”:

“It’s been 45 years since Congress held a hearing on extraterrestrial phenomena. The evidence is now massive. Hold new hearings. #Disclosure

On November 5, 2014 538 video copies of the full record of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure (CHD) were shipped to all members of the United States Congress. Shortly after these 10-DVD sets are received, PRG’s [Paradigm Research Group’s] registered lobbyist, Stephen Bassett, will renew direct engagement of the U. S. Congress for the first time since 2000 seeking new congressional hearings on extraterrestrial related phenomena. http://paradigmresearchgroup.org, http://youtu.be/WZBN_9NMhUA.”

As of today, the petition has 145 signatures and is shooting for 200.

In 1988, John Podesta and his brother Tony Podesta formed a lobbying company, known over time as Podesta Associates and PodestaMattoon. Since 2007, it’s been known as the Podesta Group (and headed by Tony Podesta). John Podesta is not currently listed as “talent” on the Podesta Group’s web site. According to Wikipedia, the Podesta Group “has close ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.”

I wrote about one of John Podesta’s earlier UFO disclosure efforts in my dissertation (“Sex! Aliens! Harvard? Rhetorical boundary-work in the media, published 2005). Here’s the story.

But first, a few words about “UFOlogy.”

All “ologys” are social constructions. Not all are legitimate. One strategy that UFOlogists have employed to establish credibility for UFOs as a legitimate research subject and themselves as legitimate researchers is to rhetorically construct UFOs as phenomena in the natural world, thus locating them inside the boundaries of legitimate science. Another strategy has been to locate the UFO phenomenon outside the boundaries of conventional science, where the authority of conventional science does not apply.

Now the story….

A project undertaken by cable television’s Sci Fi Channel (now known as Sy Fy), framed as an effort to construct scientific authority for UFOlogy, appeared to me to be a media campaign that served the purpose of promoting TV programming. In 2001-2002, Sci Fi initiated a series of activities that Sci Fi officials said were intended to convince government officials to take UFOs seriously. These activities were part of a publicity campaign for “Taken,” a Sci Fi mini-series about alien abduction broadcast in 2002.

Elements of the campaign included a series of online “chats” with UFO “experts”; the commissioning (and publicizing) of a Roper public opinion poll on UFOs; a symposium in Washington, DC, on “interstellar travel and unidentified aerial phenomena”; a symposium in New York on “the reality of the abduction phenomenon”; and a National Press Club briefing in Washington on the formation of a Coalition for Freedom of Information (CFI). The CFI – founded by self-described “investigative journalist” Leslie Kean, who continues to write about UFOs for the Huffington Post – was a Sci Fi-sponsored project of PodestaMattoon, which orchestrated the network’s UFO campaign. My friend Leonard David, reporting for space.com, described Sci Fi’s campaign as “seeking the truth through savvy marketing.”

Sci Fi’s Washington symposium took place on the campus of George Washington University. I attended this event to observe the rhetoric of UFOlogy in action. The university’s vice president for academic affairs said GWU and Sci Fi had a common interest in promoting interdisciplinary scientific research and “dispassionate discussions” about controversial subjects. The panel of seven experts assembled for this UFOlogy symposium included five Ph.Ds, among them physicists Michio Kaku (a science popularizer and ubiquitous media talking head), Stanford University professor Peter Sturrock and UFOlogist/venture capitalist Jacques Vallee. Given the importance of labeling in constructing authority, I should note that while I am referring to this event as a UFOlogy symposium, Sci Fi did not use this term in publicizing the event, and speakers at the event avoided use of the term “UFO,” employing the alternative term “unidentified aerial phenomenon” (UAP). Credentials, expertise and authority were emphasized in speaker introductions, biographies and presentations.

In 2003, the Associated Press reported on a Sci Fi Channel-backed lawsuit to make NASA divulge records of “a UFO that reportedly crash landed and was recovered by government workers” in 1965. “The cable network announced in June,” the story reported, “that it was backing the effort to research the Kecksburg incident in promoting a documentary, ‘Out of the Blue,’ which examined various UFO reports…. Sci Fi…officials said they’re looking for an explanation of what occurred. They’re also looking for viewers. A November 2002 documentary on the suspected 1947 UFO crash in Roswell…was the highest-rated special in the network’s 11-year history…seen by nearly 2.4 million people.”

Back to 2015. My advice to you, dear readers, is to question authority. How many of these “experts” have constructed their authority by using the media to frame themselves as “experts”? Just because John Podesta has worked in the White House over two administrations, does it mean he has inside information on government knowledge of UFOs? And as far as “the truth” goes, most of the “truth” that’s out there is claims dressed up as “facts.” IMHO.

Consider your sources.

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