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.

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