Asteroid survey? Asteroid retrieval? Scientists weigh in


Credit: ray

Last week’s meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in Washington, D.C., was marked by hours of prickly discussion about NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Consequently, the meeting prompted a number of reports over the past few days.

Though I attended this meeting, I won’t repeat here what’s already been covered elsewhere. Space Policy Online, Space News, and The Space Review have all provided accurate summaries of ARM discussions at last week’s meeting. I will report on some other items discussed at the meeting, in particular the status of the B612 Foundation’s Project Sentinel.

At SBAG’s last meeting in January, NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) provided a briefing on the agency’s Asteroid Initiative, including plans for the ARM. At that time scientists expressed considerable skepticism about the feasibility, utility, and scientific value of the ARM (I attended that meeting, too).

The Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has a role in the ARM: to identify potential “target” asteroids. The NEO Observations Program is also involved in interagency and international discussions regarding planetary defense (assessing the risk of asteroid impacts with Earth and planning for impact mitigation). (Full disclosure: My work is funded in part by the NEO Observations Program. No one asked me to write this post.) Many SBAG scientists are questioning whether the ARM will yield useful scientific data or make a meaningful contribution to planning for planetary defense. They’re suggesting that robotic missions would be more useful, not to mention more affordable.

This time around, NASA’s HEOMD sent a team of representatives to brief the SBAG on ARM, claiming they’ve made a lot of progress since January. After all those briefings, however, scientists were still expressing considerable skepticism.

Following its January meeting, the SBAG published a list of “findings,” including the following two items:

“NEO Survey Telescope.  NASA’s Asteroid Initiative places emphasis on the exploration of near-Earth asteroids for planetary defense, science, and resource utilization.  However, the necessary knowledge concerning the distribution of these objects and their respective characteristics is inadequate in order to successfully formulate NASA’s plans for accomplishing the Asteroid Initiative. SBAG reiterates its previous findings that support the importance of a space-based survey telescope to NASA SMD and HEOMD goals and objectives.  Although it is commendable that NASA is exploring alternative options for obtaining these data, a space-based NEO survey asset returns the greatest value with respect to exploration, planetary defense, science, resource utilization and does so in the most cost effective manner. Proper implementation of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative would best be served through a peer-reviewed NEO survey telescope mission that is funded as an agency asset. Such a foundational asset that provides essential data to aid the overall long-term objectives of NASA should be supported across the entire agency and not only through the SMD NEO Program.”

Establishment of a Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The 2010 NASA Advisory Council Planetary Defense Task Force, following the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2008 that affirmed the need for the establishment of policy with respect to threats posed by near-Earth objects, recommended that NASA establish a Planetary Defense Coordination Office that would coordinate planetary defense activities across NASA, other U.S. federal agencies, foreign space agencies, and international partners. This has not yet been realized, and SBAG reiterates the importance of establishing such an office.”

When the SBAG publishes findings from last week’s meeting, these two items will likely be on the list again.

Given all the attention paid to ARM at last week’s meeting, B612 mission scientist Marc Buie’s briefing on Project Sentinel escaped media scrutiny. However, it did not escape the scrutiny of SBAG members.

Project Sentinel is the B612 Foundation’s proposal to build and launch a space-based NEO survey telescope. B612 has a Space Act agreement with NASA under which the two signatories are to exchange data and expertise (but no funds).

Buie provided scant information on the status of Project Sentinel. (The last project status update posted on B612’s web site is dated September 2013.) SBAG chair Nancy Chabot inquired about the status of the project and the Space Act agreement, expressing concern that NASA might be relying on B612 to deliver a space-based survey telescope rather than pursuing alternate plans.

NASA’s Asteroid Initiative includes, in addition to ARM, an “Asteroid Grand Challenge” to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.” Some members of the NEO community wonder how this challenge can be met without a space-based survey telescope. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposal to NASA’s Discovery mission program for a space-based NEO survey telescope was not selected for funding. At last week’s SBAG meeting, some scientists expressed the view that it was not selected because no National Academy of Sciences decadal survey of priorities in space science has identified such a project as a science priority and because NASA’s SMD has not embraced planetary defense as part of its mission.

Commenting on Buie’s briefing, NASA NEO Observations Program executive Lindley Johnson said B612’s Space Act agreement specifies technical and schedule milestones, none of which B612 has met to date. The first technical milestone should have been met a year ago in order to meet the first schedule milestone, he noted. Buie said that doesn’t mean anything because the SAA remains in effect indefinitely. “That’s not true,” Johnson responded, “it’s under review right now.”

Over the past year or so, B612 appears to have been working hard at publicity and fund-raising. The foundation has not, as yet, divulged how much money it’s raised for Sentinel. Regarding funding, Buie told SBAG, “I’m happy to report that we’re talking to the right people…we just have to bring them along.”

That’s all, folks.


One Response to “Asteroid survey? Asteroid retrieval? Scientists weigh in”

  1. Dave Huntsman Says:

    You’re doing a service by covering the other parts of SBAG, Linda. I wish someone would ask senior NASA management the hard question: How can we justify a couple billion dollars for an ARM/Orion mission, when we won’t even spend approximately $500m for a NEO survey telescope in a Venus-like orbit to actually detect NEO threats to Earth that is, supposedly, the goal of the so-called “Asteroid Grand Challenge”? How can we justify that with a straight face?

    The other thing that comes out between the lines in your writeup is that NEOs are too important a subject for several reasons – planetary defense, resources, etc.- to be left to the Science Mission Directorate alone. Left to them, protecting Earth and its people will never be a priority; left to them, use of resources for sustainable space development will never be a priority. We need a reorganization of NASA Headquarters that gives NEOs and all of its missions not only the emphasis it deserves, but also makes clear who the advocate for those missions within the NASA HQ bureaucracy is.

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