Who’s doing what in planetary defense: further clarification


Credit: chemistry world.com

The B612 Foundation has just issued its 2018 annual report, and, as usual, it appears to attempt to take credit for the work of others and mislead readers about who’s doing what in planetary defense. (See my previous blog posts of May 7 and May 8 on this subject. And for the purposes of disclosure, I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. No one asked me to write this post.)

In a letter announcing the publication of the report, B612 President Danica Remy says, “It is time for space agencies, private corporations, academics, and nonprofits to work together with the goal of filling in the details on the millions of asteroids in our inner solar system.”

The institutions and individuals in all of these sectors that are capable of doing the work are already working together, and they have been working together for some time. Due to global efforts to find, track, and characterize NEOs and predict close approaches (within five million miles of Earth’s orbit) and possible future impacts with Earth, a worldwide network of organizations and individuals interested in planning for planetary defense against future asteroid impacts is in place, and growing in numbers and scope.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the NEO Segment of the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness Program are members of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG), multinational endeavors recommended by the United Nations for an international response to the NEO impact hazard and established and operated by space-capable nations. Other members of IAWN and SMPAG include research institutions and observatories in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and South and North America. The IAWN steering committee held its first meeting in January 2014, which I participated in, and SMPAG held its first meeting in February 2014. Both groups have been meeting about twice a year since then, adding new members, and, from my perspective, they are making good progress. The IAWN now has 15 members, the most recent to join being an observatory in Croatia. B612 is not a member of either group.

On October 18 and 19, I attended (virtually, via livestream) meetings of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG).  A summary of the SMPAG meeting is already posted online. A summary of the IAWN meeting will be posted online soon.

The Minor Planet Center (MPC), sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, is the global repository for positional measurements of asteroids and comets. It has been in operation since 1947. For the past decade, the MPC has been fully funded by NASA. The MPC is responsible for identification, designation and orbit computation for these “minor planets.”

Worldwide, space agencies are working with disaster-planning and emergency-response organizations to prepare for planetary defense.

B612 President Danica Remy writes in the 2018 report, “With asteroid 2018 LA, we saw the planet’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) and the community work together and were thus able to detect this asteroid and determine it was on a course to impact Earth. Because of the systems in place, astronomers were able to assess this object shortly after discovery and determine its Earth-impacting trajectory. The good news is that NASA has announced it is funding two additional ATLAS telescopes in the southern hemisphere.” To my eyes, this is a bit misleading. The ATLAS project is fully funded by NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program – so NASA is not only funding two new ATLAS telescopes, it’s funding the whole project. And B612 has nothing to do with “the systems in place,” as far as I know. And, yes, I suppose one could call ATLAS “the planet’s” project, as the work the project is doing serves the public interest, but IMHO it would be more accurate to describe ATLAS as “the NASA-funded” project developed by the University of Hawaii.

To provide further clarification, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey was the first observing project to report the detection of 2018 LA. Follow-up observations by ATLAS reduced uncertainties in predictions of the asteroid’s so-called impact corridor (that is, predictions of where it would enter the atmosphere). The MPC and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS), funded by NASA, determined the asteroid’s entry point based on observations reported to the MPC.

“What started in 2002 as a visionary idea to develop the technology to deflect an asteroid has grown into a world-renowned organization and scientific institute with a key role in the emerging field of planetary defense,” Remy writes. Yes, B612 is “world-renowned,” because of its relentless publicity campaigning.  B612’s “visionary idea” did not lead to the development of deflection technology. Its proposal to build a space-based NEO survey telescope called Sentinel did not move forward.

The only funded planetary defense mission, intended to demonstrate the kinetic-impact deflection method – the Double Asteroid Redirect Test – is a NASA-funded project being developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Baltimore magazine recently published a good article about the DART mission, giving credit where credit is due.

Though I’m sure the people at B612 would argue with me on this point, I say that it’s not accurate for B612 to claim that it plays “a key role” in planetary defense. While, yes, B612 does contribute to the ongoing worldwide effort to raise public awareness about the need for planetary defense, I don’t see it as playing a key role, and typically its public-awareness efforts give too much credit to B612 and too little credit to all the individuals and organizations who are actually doing the work.

I also would not call planetary defense an “emerging” field. A major step forward in understanding the risk of possible future asteroid impacts with Earth was the discovery of a large, buried impact crater in Mexico, the Chicxulub crater, and the finding, published by Luis and Walter Alvarez and Michael Asaro in 1980, that this crater was caused by the impact of a 10-15-kilometer (6-9-mile) sized asteroid with Earth. In 1994, the break-up and impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter, long predicted and widely observed from the ground and from space, provided real-time evidence that impact events continue to occur in the solar system. NASA established a NEO observations program in 1998, responding to a directive from Congress. NASA officially established its Planetary Defense Coordination Office (encompassing the NEO observations program) in January 2016. IAWN and SMPAG have been operating since 2014, as I’ve noted above. Planetary defense conferences (PDCs) have been taking place every two years since 2004. A recommendation coming out of the most recent PDC, last year in Tokyo, was: “Awareness of existing networks and groups like IAWN and SMPAG should be increased.” B612 does not seem to be doing much to increase awareness of existing networks and groups. Rather, it keeps calling out a need for things that are already in place.

Remy claims, “For years, B612, our partners, and a global community of dedicated scientists and researchers have advocated for increased asteroid detection and many victories have resulted from those efforts. Asteroid detection is now debated seriously in scientific, governmental, and public conversations.” I would give the lion’s share of credit for advocacy to the “global community of dedicated scientists and researchers” who are actually doing the work.

Remy claims B612’s Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping project (ADAM) “will support transparent analysis of asteroid data with open and published algorithms and will be used to assess threatening situations, identify and analyze the trade-offs in possible realistic courses of action, and create actionable decision-making analysis.” See this July report from CNEOS describing how this work is already being done. All data reported to the MPC are publicly available. CNEOS’ Sentry system, a 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,” makes all of its data publicly available. CNEOS’ Scout system provides trajectory analysis and hazard assessment for recently detected objects listed on the MPC’s NEO Confirmation page (detections reported on this page are in need of confirmation by other observers). The only difference between what CNEOS and other organizations are already doing and what this ADAM project proposes to do is perhaps open-source software.

B612’s annual report includes an abstract of a paper authored by B612 co-founder Ed Lu and Richard Carty making the case for “the need, value, and opportunities for a dynamic map of our solar system. This map will be served up by the engine the Asteroid Institute is building called [ADAM] project. The paper will be published in late 2018.” If this paper is to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, peer review should ensure that the authors cite all the work on this mapping that’s already been done.

There’s more to critique, but I’m done for now.

My repeated attempts to clarify B612’s rhetoric remind me of my repeated attempts to convince my cat not to walk on the dining table. They both keep doing it. But I’ll keep doing it, too.

Big-ticket rockets in the news


Credit: lovepik.com

Lots of rockets are in the news this week. Not all the news is good, and not all of it is new.

Yesterday the U.S. Air Force announced it had awarded nine-figure contracts to three aerospace companies for new expendable launch vehicle projects. According to Reuters, the value of the contracts is a total of $2.3 billion.

The contracts go to Blue Origin ($500 million) to build a launcher called New Glenn, United launch Services ($967 million) – an arm of the United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – to build a launcher called Vulcan, and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems ($791.6 million) to build a launcher called OmegA. These rockets will be designed to launch spacecraft, not people.

As of today, according to Forbes magazine, Jeff Bezos – who owns Blue Origin – has a net worth of $144.7 billion. With a B. He could build his new rocket all by himself. (He’s received subsidies and contracts from NASA to build his New Shepard rocket system.)

Meanwhile, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on the development of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), designed to launch people into space, first to the International Space Station (ISS), and then, presumably, elsewhere. Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online reports that “poor performance by [contractor] Boeing and program management by NASA are blamed…. Boeing will spend twice what was planned” – $8.9 billion rather than the $4.2 billion awarded to build the system – “through 2021 for building two core stages and an upper stage while delivery of the first core stage has slipped 2.5 years already and may be further delayed.” See Marcia’s report for a good summary of the OIG report.

In a 2016 report on the development of so-called “commercial” human-rated launch systems – SLS and SpaceX’s Falcon 9/crew Dragon system – the NASA OIG said that NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program had awarded fixed-price contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion). “Given delays in the Commercial Crew Program,” according to this report, NASA had to extend its contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos for astronaut transportation through 2018 “at an additional cost of $490 million or $82 million a seat for six more seats.” Roscosmos’s Soyuz rocket is the only means of transporting NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

As Space Policy Online reported today, this week’s launch of a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station was a failure. The Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned, the crew capsule separated from the rocket, and the crew returned safely to Earth. (Will NASA get a refund, or will it have to pay twice to get its guy to the ISS?)

The 2016 NASA OIG report noted that “in November 2013, we reported on the status of and challenges facing the Commercial Crew Program.In that report, we noted the Program had received only 38 percent of its requested funding for fiscal years (FY) 2011 through 2013, and as a result, NASA had delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from 2015 to at least 2017.”

In August of this year, NASA reported that its “Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX are finalizing plans for launch day operations as they prepare for the company’s first flight test with astronauts on board. The teams are working toward a crew test flight” to the ISS with two astronauts “in April 2019. In preparation for this test flight, SpaceX and NASA will continue to complete and review the important analyses and tests leading to launch.” (Whatever that means.)

So it appears that now we’re looking at 2019 (not 2015, not 2017) as the earliest possible date for a NASA “commercial crew” launch. And somehow I doubt that it will happen next year…

I work with space science programs at NASA – astrobiology and planetary defense. What does all this rocket stuff have to do with space science? It eats up a huge chunk of federal funding available for space activities. By my estimate, human space flight activities take up at least two thirds of NASA’s budget, leaving the rest for aeronautics, science, facilities…. (And I won’t even get into the military space budget….) Meanwhile, space science missions are growing more and more complex, and thus more and more expensive.

The cost of NASA’s Europa Clipper project — an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, now in its design phase, has been estimated at $2 billion. Given the history of space science mission development (take a look at the James Webb Space Telescope project, which is years behind schedule and many billions over budget), the cost of this mission is likely to be much higher. The astrobiology community would love to see NASA take on a Europa lander mission – which undoubtedly would be more expensive than Clipper, an orbiter mission. NASA’s budget for planetary defense – the request (not yet appropriated) for the current fiscal year is $150 million – is not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based near-Earth-object survey telescope, a $500 million mission that the planetary defense community has long advocated as a top priority.

Yesterday the National Academy of Sciences released a report on NASA’s astrobiology strategy for the search for life in the universe.  The expert panel that prepared this report recommended that “to advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should accelerate the development and validation, in relevant environments, of mission-ready, life detection technologies. In addition, it should integrate astrobiological expertise in all mission stages— from inception and conceptualization to planning, development, and operations.” The report also says that NASA should push forward the development of “high-contrast starlight suppression technologies in near-term space- and ground-based direct imaging missions,” and that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability” on other planetary bodies. These are all sound recommendations, but it will take more than the $65 million a year or so in NASA’s budget for astrobiology to make such things happen. (I will post more about this report sometime soon.)

Here’s my five cents worth: given that space science missions are focused more and more intently on the search for habitable environments and life in the solar system and beyond, astrobiology should be elevated from a research and analysis program to a full-blown program, with a big enough budget to develop life-detection missions.  As the National Academy of Sciences report noted, astrobiology investigations now fly as add-ons to mission designed for other purposes – such as the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory. As to planetary defense, though it’s still not big enough to fully fund the development of a space-based NEO survey telescope, the 2019 budget request for it does elevate planetary defense from a research program to a full-blown program with the potential for developing missions.

On a final note, earlier this week Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson said – for the umpty-umpth time over many years – that he will be launching his first tourist-in-space flight into suborbital space, um, soon. Branson told CNBC“that he hoped to be onboard an early Virgin Galactic flight ‘in months not years’, with passengers willing to part with $250,000 (£192,000) taking their seats ‘not too long after that’.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

Technosignatures: SETI in sheep’s clothing


Last month I attended (virtually) a scientific workshop on “technosignatures,” held in Houston and sponsored by NASA. It was weird, fascinating, and ultimately frustrating.

NASA sponsored this workshop, organized by scientists with the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), because Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, which is in charge of authorizing NASA programs, is fascinated by SETI and thinks NASA should get back in the game. Rep. Smith, by means of a video clip, opened the workshop by saying he’s read every single book on the subject.

Michael New, the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s deputy associate administrator for research, said at the workshop that NASA was sponsoring the meeting because “there’s language in our authorization bill that says we should be interested.” New also mentioned that NASA’s call for proposals for exobiology research does not exclude SETI research in general – only searches for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.

Scientists engaged in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life (SETI, for search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have decided that “SETI” has acquired a taint. So now they say they are searching for evidence of technosignatures – that is, evidence of technologies produced by intelligent life. It’s still SETI, as far as I’m concerned (see below for more on what a technosignature might be).

Scientists at the workshop offered up many interesting, intriguing, far-out, and to a large degree infeasible (either financially or technologically, though mostly financially) proposals for advancing the search for evidence of ETI life.

Sofia Sheikh of Penn State University reported to the group on recommendations from an ad hoc committee on “SETI nomenclature.” For example, the recommended definition for (or meaning of) “intelligence” is “the quality of being able to deliberately engineer technology which might be detectable using astronomical observation techniques.” (This definition excludes non-human varieties of intelligence – say, octopus intelligence, bird intelligence…). The group also recommends rejecting use of the term “advanced” because it’s a vague term that stems from “deprecated theories” (that is, the belief that human life is the pinnacle of evolution and that human life is superior to all other forms of life on Earth).

Nonetheless, other presenters referred to the so-called “Kardashev scale” – proposed in 1964 by Russian radio astronomer and SETI advocate Nikolai Kardashev – “ a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use,” according to Wikipedia.

David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute questioned the wisdom of the Kardashev scale. The history of human civilizations “disqualifies us from considering ourselves an intelligent” species. So in pursuing SETI, “what we seek is not what we are.” An “inevitable-expansion fallacy” is embedded in the Kardashev scale, an assumption that the more energy a civilization consumes, the more developed it will be. Intelligent civilizations on Earth have not acted very intelligently.

Adam Frank of Rochester University posed the question, “How do we avoid anthropocentric tunnel-vision?” (Good question. It was on display in a number of presentations at the workshop. See below.)

SETI Institute president Bill Diamond claimed that “all of humanity is curious” about extraterrestrial intelligent life. (I myself am not aware of any convincing evidence showing this to be the case.) Diamond also claimed that “SETI can only serve to drive greater public interest” in space exploration and that SETI “can enhance NASA’s brand.” (These are questionable claims, and I disagree.)

Shubham Kanodia of Penn State noted that our knowledge of the “known” universe is severely lacking and that SETI scientists have searched very little of the “cosmic haystack” for evidence of ETI – “a bathtub of water out of all of Earth’s oceans.” Why? “Because we haven’t searched that much.” (Though this was not Kanodia’s point, the point to me is that the search space is so vast that the idea of a thorough search is implausible.)

Others argued that SETI researchers should be looking for evidence of non-terrestrial artifacts in our own solar system – say, on Mars or Venus, planets that may have been habitable billions of years ago. Ravi Kopparapu of Penn State said researchers have searched very little of the searchable space in the solar system, “Repeated searches with time” may yield finds. He also said what’s needed to advance the search for ETI artifacts is “further synthesis and study on the persistence of uniquely industrial byproducts in ocean sediment environments.”

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said we could explore the subsurface of Venus and Mars with ground-penetrating radar and deep drilling to look for buried signs of past civilizations. Such searches should look for metals, multiple extinction horizons, nuclear waste, plastics, and synthetic chemicals, for example. Something to think about: “What will the fingerprint of the Anthropocene era” – the current human-dominated era of life on Earth – “be in the eventual sedimentary record hundreds of millions of years from now? Fingerprints of past industry may be more apparent in geology than in artifacts, he said.

(These arguments for searching for ETI artifacts are based on the “anthropocentric-tunnel-vision” assumption that ET intelligence would be like human intelligence – not, say, octopus intelligence.)

It’s easy to design an algorithm to look for a specific hypothesized signal, noted David Kipping of Columbia University, but the challenge is knowing how to recognize “the truly weird.”

Other presenters offered ideas about how to employ data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, near-infrared/infrared astronomical observations.

Jamie Drew, chief of staff for the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Initiatives, reported on partners in the organization’s SETI project, Breakthrough Listen, including the Green Bank Observatory, the University of California-Berkeley, and the Square Kilometer Array. The project is also pursuing a partnership with China’s FAST 500 Telescope, now the largest radio telescope in the world. Drew also noted that Breakthrough will not be proceeding with its proposed Breakthrough Message project due to its controversial nature (many scientists think it would be unwise, perhaps unethical, to send messages out in hopes that they would be received by ETI).

It seems to me that the SETI community has done a good enough job of tapping into billionaire reserves (Paul Allen for the Allen Telescope Array, Yuri Milner for Breakthrough Listen). NASA receives far more qualified proposals for funding for astrophysics and planetary science research than it has the budget to fund. Why add SETI? And even if Rep. Smith’s proposed $10 million a year for two years for SETI at NASA is appropriated – an unknown right now – I can’t see how the sorts of science projects discussed at the workshop will get very far along. Then again, I’m a self-described SETI skeptic.