Who’s doing what in planetary defense: further clarification

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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.

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