Saving the world from asteroids: who’s in charge here?

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Last Friday I observed a press conference held to publicize an Association of Space Explorers (ASE) statement submitted to the United Nations urging global action to protect Earth from the “threat” of asteroid impacts. (You can watch the event yourself on YouTube here.)

What was remarkable about this event was that, amidst an hour’s worth of discussion about the need to monitor near-Earth objects and take steps toward defense against possible NEO impacts with Earth, there was no mention of existing efforts along these lines. Whether unintentionally or not, none of the ASE members on the podium mentioned that United States has a NEO observing program and that the Minor Planet Center is already gathering and distributing global data on NEOs and issuing alerts about potentially hazardous asteroids.

No one said a word about NASA’s NEO observation program, the Obama administration’s request to double the budget for this program in fiscal year 2014 (a request held hostage by congressional budget wrangling right now), NASA’s restart of the NEOWISE space-based infrared NEO observation campaign (in 2014), the Minor Planet Center’s global database of NEO observations and its global communication network for issuing alerts about potentially hazardous asteroids, NASA’s collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Administration on NEO impact preparedness and response…and so on.

(Full disclosure: I do research for NASA’s NEO program. That said, no one at NASA asked me to write this blog. I found the oversight glaring and decided it was worth a post.)

Friday’s press conference was held by the ASE, whose members are astronauts and cosmonauts with space flight experience. The event was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and moderated by AMNH astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Three of the ASE members on stage, ex-NASA astronauts Rusty Schweickart, Ed Lu, and Tom Jones, are principals* of the B612 Foundation, which is engaged in a fund-raising campaign to pay for a space-based NEO observation spacecraft called Sentinel. Though no one mentioned it at the event, I viewed the press conference as part of B612’s fund-raising campaign.

NASA’s NEO Program, formally established in 1998 in response to congressional directive, is responsible for finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects. The NEO Program sponsors internal and external research projects. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages a NEO Program Office for the Headquarters NEO Program. At Friday’s event, Schweickart did mention in passing Don Yeomans, who manages JPL’s NEO program office once or twice. He did not mention that Don works for the NEO program.

National Space Policy (June 28, 2010) directs NASA to “pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet and to identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects.” The White House Asteroid Initiative proposed in 2013 calls for an expanded NEO program.

The NEO program supports NEO surveys that promise a sustained, productive search for and/or follow-up observations of sufficient astrometric precision to allow the accurate prediction of the trajectories of discovered objects. The program also supports efforts to characterize a representative sample of NEOs by measuring their sizes, shapes, and compositions. It supports both internal and external NEO projects. The NEO program is devoting a limited amount of funding to research into NEO impact mitigation and deflection strategies and techniques.

All NEO search or follow-up programs supported by the NASA program are required to make their data permanently available in a timely manner to the scientific community. The internationally recognized archive for this data is the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center, located at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

In conducting its work, the NEO program collaborates with other U.S. government agencies, other national and international agencies, and professional and amateur astronomers around the world. For example, NASA works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of State on NEO impact mitigation and response planning. NASA’s NEO program participates in the International Spaceguard Survey, initiated in the 1990s and managed by the Spaceguard Foundation. The NASA program is responsible for facilitating communications between the astronomical community and the public should any potentially hazardous NEO be discovered.

For its first 10 years or so, the NASA NEO program operated on a budget averaging around $4 million per year. In April 2010, President Obama announced a new goal for NASA: a human mission to an asteroid. The President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request included, and Congress authorized, $20.4 million for an expanded NASA NEO observation program. (I’m not sure how much of that money was actually appropriated.) The President’s fiscal year 2014 budget request for NASA includes $105 million to begin work on an “asteroid redirect” mission, including $40 million – a doubled budget – for the NASA NEO Program. (Again, current congressional budget wrangling is holding these funds hostage, as far as I know.) The administration’s three-part “Asteroid Initiative” includes planning for a human mission to an asteroid, a “grand challenge” to develop a NEO defense system, and an expanded NEO observation program.  The NEO program is tasked with identifying and characterizing NEOs suited to capture, retrieval, and human exploration.

ASE describes its latest statement to the U.N. as a “call for global cooperation to confront asteroid threats.” I must note that global cooperation is well under way. The challenge is not reaching global agreement on the need for NEO defense. Agreement has not been reached on who’s responsible for financing such a defense, and I’m guessing that’s going to take awhile. According to an October 25 ASE press release, ASE’s statement to the U.N. is “a challenge to the global community to take the next vital steps to confront the threat from dangerous asteroids.” You can find those next steps in the ASE statement, here.

Getting back to the press conference, let me pose a question: What do you get when you issue a press release, hold a press conference, and offer up (ex) astronauts as experts? The answer? Free media coverage! (Without critical analysis, I’ll note.)

In its report on the event, Scientific American said, “The U.N. plans to set up an “International Asteroid Warning Group” for member nations to share information about potentially hazardous space rocks. If astronomers detect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth, the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraft to slam into the object and deflect it from its collision course…. [T]he Association of Space Explorers (ASE) recommended these steps to the U.N. as a first step to address at the long-neglected problem of errant space rocks.” This is a rather nebulous and, I think, not quite accurate, description of a complex process. For one, ASE is only one of many parties – including NASA and the European Space Agency – that participated in the process of developing the COPUOS recommendations. For another, these recommendations are not ASE recommendations, they are COPUOS recommendations, adopted at a meeting in June.

Scientific American dutifully noted that “the B612 Foundation, a non profit Lu founded to address the problem of asteroid impacts, is developing a privately funded infrared space telescope called Sentinel, which it hopes to launch in 2017.” (Contributions welcome.)

Space.com’s report on the press conference is headlined,” Global Effort Needed to Defend Earth from Asteroids, Astronauts Tell UN.” The lead of this story states, “Members of the United Nations met with distinguished astronauts and cosmonauts this week in New York to begin implementing the first-ever international contingency plan for defending Earth against catastrophic asteroid strikes.” Again, I don’t think this statement is quite accurate – though I’m sure the ASE is perfectly happy with it.

Popular Mechanics also covered the press conference, reporting that “Tom Jones—former NASA astronaut, committee member of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), and PopMech contributor” – the article didn’t mention that Jones is also a “strategic advisor” to the B612 Foundation – “said that ASE and the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space have been working on the plan for dealing with asteroids for six years.” It would be more accurate to say that COPUOS has been working on NEO impact hazard/planetary defense issues for many years, in consultation with ASE and many other governmental and non-governmental organizations. “The first step is for space agencies to set up an International Asteroid Warning Network.”

Organization of an IAWN is well under way, with a first meeting of an IAWN steering committee likely to occur before the end of this year, I’m told.

For reasons that are not fully understood, our culture gives great authority to those who have been in space, simply because they’ve been in space. (See my blog post on this phenomenon.) If a bunch of ex-astronauts tell a bunch of reporters that they have a plan to save the world, who’s going to question them? ASE and B612, both astronaut-driven groups, are relying on what scholars have called a narrative of technological salvation to rally supporters behind their proposals to “save the world” from asteroids. (Nobody at the Friday press conference chanted the “save the world” mantra – at least not out loud.) With budget and staffing reductions in the news media industry coupled with the development of a global 24/7 news environment, journalists have little time to do research and fact-checking. Thus news sources have a greater obligation than ever to provide accurate and complete information on whatever “news” they may be peddling.

That’s my five cents worth….

* Schweickart is co-founder and chair emeritus of the B612 Foundation and also founder of the Association of Space Explorers. Lu is co-founder and CEO of B612. Jones is a “strategic  advisor” to B612.

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7 Responses to “Saving the world from asteroids: who’s in charge here?”

  1. Dave Huntsman Says:

    Methinks you doth protesteth too much.

    While there has indeed been some international coordination under way, the long process of getting the UN officially involved is a needed first step in what will be a long process to hopefully have a formal planet-wide planetary protection process. And while the ASE is indeed only one of the organizations involved, Rusty Schweickart using the ASE to get this whole international consultation and integration process going is something he should rightly be proud of (for a guy who announced his ‘retirement’ from this whole effort over a year ago, he’s still going strong). We wouldn’t be where we are with the UN without Rusty and the ASE, not to mention his constant pounding on NASA the past ten years.

  2. doctorlinda Says:

    Though I disagree with your assessment, I’m happy to post it. What we see depends on where we stand, and from where I stand it appears to me that insufficient credit is being given where credit is due. Nonetheless, thanks for your comment!

  3. Rusty Schweickart Says:

    Linda:

    I’m somewhat surprised by your take on our press conference from last Friday at the Hayden Planetarium in NYC. As a communications person you know the importance of being concise and to the point. Five astronauts/cosmonauts + Neil Tyson completed their introductory remarks in 30 minutes(!!)… that’s some kind of record. If we had taken the time to go through the entire history of NEO work giving the full credit and thanks for the excellent work of many people, in and out of government, that alone would have taken a hour… and no one would have been left in the audience.

    But what is most disturbing about your blog is the misunderstanding you seem to have (perhaps I’m wrong) re many of the facts of the NEO discovery process.

    If you listened to Ed Lu carefully you would have gotten that (re “city killers” and larger) we currently only have in our database (i.e. the JPL/MPC/world database) less than 1% of the NEO population. The current NASA funded telescopes, including NEOWISE, PANStarrs, etc. are completely inadequate to completing that cohort of concern. Nor are they required to by law. They are, by law, required to complete to the 90% level all objects >140 meters by 2020, but even this smaller population contains about 40,000 objects of which we currently know less than 10%.

    NASA’s current telescopes are inadequate to do the required job. Nor, given the current NASA and national priorities are they even requesting, let alone being appropriated the funds that would be required to get the job done. Yes, there is an internal concept (NEOCam) that would clearly be a huge step beyond the current capability, but this project is also not likely to be funded given NASA’s current priorities and the Congress’ current “practices”.

    Given this situation B612 Foundation decided a couple of years ago (under Ed Lu’s leadership) to commit to privately raising the necessary funds to get the job done. We adopted the explicit recommendation of several expert groups, including NASA’s Advisory Council, in specifying an IR telescope placed in a Venus-like orbit… i.e. Sentinel. NASA is supporting B612 in this endeavor via a Space Act Agreement (SAA) and all the NEO discovery data from the 5.5 years of operation (starting in 2018) will be fed directly into the existing MPC/JPL system.

    Most important Sentinel will discover, in its first two weeks of operation, more NEOs than the entire NEO discovery process prior to that time. In the 5.5 years of operation we will exceed the 90% of 140 meter objects and reach approximately 50% of the 40 meter population (i.e.Congress’ “city killers”) as well.

    There is no conflict here… please don’t invent one! The troops at MPC, JPL, NEODyS and elsewhere are all our friends and compatriots… we all work to the same end! The money we are raising to fund Sentinel is not easy to come by… but it also does not depend on the taxpayers nor does it compete with NASA’s (and the Congress’s) other priorities. Nor, for that matter, suffer from the current government (or future) vagaries.

    NASA, and all the NEO troops involved in the NEO effort, have done a great job with the resources they’ve been given. But a $20M budget vs. the historic $4M budget WILL NOT get the job done and everyone knows that. B612 is stepping up to fund this via private means and we are *VERY* thankful to the many contributors that have made our progress to date possible.

    Similarly ASE has led the effort, since 2006, to bring the NEO issue to the international community, primarily via the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The work we have done, reflected in our report to COPUOS in 2009, Asteroid Threats: A Call For Global Response, (www.space-explorers.org/ATACGR.pdf) formed the basis for the COPUOS report to the UN General Assembly establishing a foundation decision-making process for responding to NEO threats. This is what is being processed in the current UN GA session, and is the reason that we organized the press conference. The ASE recognizes, and published recommendations, for the next critical steps that national governments should take in order to put “meat” onto the “skeleton” that COPUOS has developed thus far.

    All parties who have been part of this process, and both B612 and ASE have been in the middle of this effort, are working closely together to move this ball forward.

    I regret that you seemed to misunderstand this process. If I, or Tom Jones, who is heading the ASE’s NEO efforts at the UN, or Ed Lu, who is heading the B612 efforts to find the 90% of potentially harmful NEOs we currently are unaware of, can answer any further questions… please let us know. We are most happy to provide you with informed answers and we would appreciate you more fully reflecting the reality of the current efforts… both in early warning and international cooperation.

    Thanks,

    Rusty Schweickart
    Former ASE NEO Committee Chair
    B612 Chairman Emeritus

    • doctorlinda Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Rusty. My perspective on these matters is different from yours, and equally valid.

      As you know, I have worked in the aerospace community for 30 years. My expertise is communication. My Ph.D. is in communication. I am a social scientist. That said, I’m pleased to affirm that I do understand the NEO discovery process and “the facts” about NEOs. Just this year alone, I’ve had a crash course on current NEO science, having spent five days at the Planetary Defense Congress, a day at the Target NEO 2 Workshop, and two days at the July meeting of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (among other NEO-related events). At the same time I’ve been deeply immersed in records documenting the history of NEO discovery and NASA’s NEO program. Rest assured, I do understand the facts and the process.

      You misunderstand my intent in positing that I may be posing a conflict where none exists. My post expresses my concern for public knowledge and understanding of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know about NEOs. My concern is not about giving credit where credit is due. My concern is about fully informing citizens about what’s going on in NEO discovery, tracking, and characterization and planning for planetary defense.

      I have another concern that I hope to be able to address in a future blog post: the misrepresentation of U.N. actions on NEOs during the course of ASE’s October 25 event. I’ve received correspondence from U.N. officials correcting the record. I’ve asked permission to make public these private communications. In the meantime, I hope these officials will make their correctives public on their own.

      I have one last observation: it is interesting (and rather disturbing) to me that in all the media reports I’ve seen on your Oct. 25 event thus far, none quote or cite any U.N. officials, even though headlines and leads are all about U.N. actions. That’s not a problem for ASE, that’s a problem for journalism.

      • E.P. Grondine Says:

        Hi Linda –

        I saw you years ago at several aero-space events, and yes you are qualified as a press officer.

        I got hit with a stroke while completing my book “Man and Impact in the Americas”, and I still do not type that much. I hope you will not take my briefness in this remark for hostility.

        I run into self proclaimed impact experts nearly daily. Often times they approach me for validation.

        I have been attacked by various nuts for the same period of time.

        Based on 17 years of experience in this field, I am fairly certain that you do not know enough about the impact hazard to comment on your level of knowledge of it.

        Its not that your perspective is not “valid”, it is simply that it is not very well informed.

        But if you keep at it, you’ll become pretty good.

        As I am sure that dealing with the impact hazard will become a central focus of every nations’ space program, it is a good field in aerospace to get into to.

      • doctorlinda Says:

        Mr. Grondine, I do not know you. I do know this: you have no authority to declare what I am and am not qualified to do or be. I am not a press officer. I never have been a press officer. I am a social scientist and a scholar of communication. My c.v. is posted here on my blog site, and it provides the details of what I have been and done.

        My perspectives on the subjects I blog about here are, indeed, very well informed. They may differ from yours, but they are well researched, well considered, and well informed, as scholarly work should be.

        I do not want to engage in argument on this site. (Dialogue? Yes.) I have posted your comment in order to respond to it, however, as I am growing mightily tired of men I don’t know (and who do not know me) declaring me insufficiently informed. You say: “Its not that your perspective is not “valid”, it is simply that it is not very well informed.” I would argue that yours is not. We shall have to agree to disagree.

        Having worked with space scientists for the past 30 years or so in one capacity or another, I have come to know many experts – not self-proclaimed but properly accredited and validated as experts by their peers – on asteroids and the history of asteroid/comet impacts with Earth, among many other topics. I have asked a few of them if they know of you and your work, and only one recognizes your name (and also does not recognize you as an expert).

        I have read the blurb about your book “Man and Impact in the Americas.” Your interpretations of this history are different from those that I know are widely peer-reviewed and widely accepted.

        I have listened to your interview on X Zone Radio on the topic of your book. The X Zone is a self-declared ““place where fact is fiction and fiction is reality.” In the X Zone, people discuss so-called paranormal phenomena, claims of IUFO sightings, etc. By the way, I have done a considerable amount of research on what I call “fringe science,” and, again, I must point out that I am, indeed, qualified to comment on it.

        I found this comment you posted on the blog site Cosmic Tusk (typos are yours, not mine):

        “While Kennett et al will own the Holocene Start Impact Event in the mainstream, I will continue to own it among te First Peoples. (I do wish the team would get the name right – it’s Holocene Start Impact Event.)

        And of course I coninue to own and will always own zll of the other impacts in the America, with the exception of Schultx’s team’s work on Rio Cuarto. And I will continue to own all of those impacts I recovered during my years of reporting for the Cambridge Conference as well.

        My current needs are a macxed out dual G4 MacPro, and a macxed out dual G5 tower.

        Aside from that, I need around $10,000 to document a likely crater from the Holocene Start Impact Event. That should bring Morrison, Boslough, et al’s nonsense to an abrupt screeching halt. If all of the people who Boslough et al burned were simply to pass the hat among themseles and split up that $10,000…”

        In closing, for you and anyone else who wishes to comment on my blog posts, I’m happy to air different perspectives. You all are free to disagree with me. I will no longer post comments from people who feel a need to question my abilities. That rhetorical strategy is what is called “hitting below the belt.” It’s dirty play, and it’s easy to recognize.

        My aim in maintaining this blog is to expand public discourse on a variety of topics I’ve been privileged to learn about from top experts in their fields. I want to share my informed views and learn about the informed views of others. I welcome comments and questions that arise in this spirit. I’ll answer all reasonable questions and post, and sometimes respond to, all reasonable comments. I reserve the right to determine what’s reasonable.

  4. doctorlinda Says:

    Sergio Camacho, chair of the UN Action Team on Near Earth Objects and chair of the UN COPUOS NEO Working Group, tells me the ASE’s NEO statement of October 25 is “not accurate on several points.” He explains:

    The work that has been carried out on NEOS within the framework of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2013 has recently been considered by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (also referred to as Fourth Committee) of the General Assembly during the week of 21 October 2013. During that period, the Fourth Committee considered the report of COPUOS and agreed on a draft resolution titled “International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space” which among other things endorses the report of COPUOS on the work carried out during its session held in June of 2013. The draft resolution will only be considered and agreed upon by the Plenary of the General Assembly later this year, probably in early December.

    One of the agreements of COPUOS at its 2013 session was to endorse the report of its Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) on the work carried out at its session in February of 2013 (UN document A/AC.105/1038). Annex III of that report contains recommendations regarding an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat. The recommendations indicate what should be done and describe the process of implementing the proposed actions. The implementation of the recommendations would be carried out by Member States of the United Nations and their institutions and should be done at no cost to the United Nations.

    The recommendations include the establishment of an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and of a Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SPMAG). Their establishment should be facilitated by the COPUOS Action Team on NEOS and would be based on existing programmes and ongoing or already planned activities by a wide spectrum of institutions and space agencies. The recommendations agreed to by COPUOS do not indicate that COPUOS would consider and authorize any proposed NEO deflection campaign. Should the situation ever arise, Member States would need to agree on the need for such a campaign and on specifics of carrying out, or not, the campaign. Rather, COPUOS endorsed the recommendation that once established, the IAWN and the SMPAG should report to the STSC on an annual basis on their work.”

    What follows is the exact text of the recommendations made by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee:

    From A/AC.105/1038, Annex III)

    “11. Upon consideration of the two reports referred to above, which were presented by the Action Team, the Working Group recommended that the following actions should be taken:

    (a) An international asteroid warning network (IAWN), open to contributions by a wide spectrum of organizations, should be established by linking together the institutions that were already performing, to the extent possible, the proposed functions, including discovering, monitoring and physically characterizing the potentially hazardous NEO population and maintaining an internationally
    recognized clearing house for the receipt, acknowledgment and processing of all
    NEO observations. Such a network would also recommend criteria and thresholds for notification of an emerging impact threat;

    (b) IAWN should interface with the relevant international organizations and
    programmes to establish linkages with existing national and international disaster
    response agencies in order to study and plan response activities for potential NEO impact events and to recommend strategies using well-defined communication plans and procedures to assist Governments in their response to predicted impact consequences. This does not limit the possibility of organizing, in this respect, additional international specialized advisory groups, if necessary;

    (c) A space mission planning advisory group (SMPAG) should be established by States Members of the United Nations that have space agencies. The group should include representatives of spacefaring nations and other relevant
    entities. Its responsibilities should include laying out the framework, timeline and
    options for initiating and executing space mission response activities. The group
    should also promote opportunities for international collaboration on research and
    techniques for NEO deflection.

    12. The groups recommended above should have their work facilitated by the
    United Nations on behalf of the international community.

    13. The Working Group recommended that the Action Team on Near-Earth Objects should assist in the establishment of IAWN and SMPAG. The Action Team should inform the Subcommittee of the progress in the establishment of both groups. Once established, IAWN and SMPAG should report on an annual basis on their work.

    14. The Working Group agreed that all recommendations contained in the present report should be implemented with no cost to the regular budget of the United Nations.”


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