National strategy for asteroid impact preparedness

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Meteor Crater, Arizona

Credit: techtimes.com

On December 30, 2016, the White House released its new “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy,” a document that assigns roles and responsibilities across the federal government for finding and tracking near-Earth objects, identifying potentially hazardous objects, and preparing for response in the event that a near-Earth object is found to be on a certain impact course with Earth.

To my eyes, this strategy is a follow-through to White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Holdren’s 2010 letter to Congress outlining a framework for handling these tasks.

Holdren was responding to congressional direction in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (Section 804) directing OSTP to “develop a policy for notifying Federal agencies and relevant interagency response institutions of an impending near-Earth object threat…and…recommend a Federal agency or agencies to be responsible for protecting the U.S. from NEO impacts ad implementing a NEO detection campaign “should one be necessary.”

In his 2010 letter, Holdren said NASA – specifically, its NEO Observations Program – which now operates as a major element of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), established just a year ago – would be responsible for finding and tracking NEOs and working on impact mitigation or deflection options, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be responsible for emergency response.

Since then, the two agencies have worked together on a number of initiatives, including four joint “tabletop exercises” simulating asteroid impact events, in April 2013, May 2014, October 2016, and December 2016. Both agencies participate in the Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects (NEOS) (DAMIEN). Organized by OSTP, DAMIEN is the group that produced the 2016 national NEO Preparedness strategy.

(Disclosure: My work is funded in part by NASA’s PDCO. I have not been directly involved in the DAMIEN group. No one asked me to write this blog – it’s an “FYI” post.)

You can find presentations by DAMIEN principals Alvin Drew/OSTP, Lindley Johnson/PDCO, Leviticus Lewis/FEMA, and Bhavya Lal/Science and Technology Policy Institute (a sort of “think tank” for OSTP) to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 20, 2016, on the OSTP web site.

Is the establishment of this national strategy big news? Probably not – unless you work in the NEO or emergency response community. The strategy puts NEO detection/planetary defense on the official White House “map,” as it were, and codifies work already in progress.

Should we trust our government to do the right thing if and when the time comes? According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press – which I consider to be a reliable source of information – a majority of U.S. respondents to a 2016 poll said they have “a great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the military, medical scientists, and scientists “to act in the best interests in the public.” However, in a 2015 poll, Pew researchers found that “just 19%” of respondents said they trust the government “always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century.”

Who knows what this new year will bring?

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