NEO Surveyor – postponed???

Shockingly – at least to those of us in the planetary defense community (I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s planetary defense program, and no one asked me to write this post) – NASA’s fiscal year 2023 budget request, unveiled yesterday, includes only $39.9 million for the NEO Surveyor mission – which would be the first space-based dedicated near-Earth object (NEO) survey telescope, a mission that would play a key role in planning for planetary defense.

NASA’s fiscal year 2022 budget – just recently approved – includes $143.2 million for NEO Surveyor. On March 11, Arizona Senator Kristen Sinema issued a press release reporting that she and her colleagues in the Senate had secured the full funding request for the mission this year.

And now this.

Fiscal 2023 funding for the mission at $39.9 million brings its budget down close to funding provided in NASA’s 2021 operating plan – $31.3 million. Of course, this is just the beginning of the budget process for the coming fiscal year, but the level of funding for the mission in the budget request is disturbingly low.

My understanding is that, if the budget request for NEO Surveyor is approved as proposed, the mission would be postponed for at least two years. The longer this – or any other – mission is delayed, the more the cost will go up. The NEO Surveyor team is in the process of procuring equipment for the spacecraft – delay of launch could mean that some of this equipment could become obsolete.

NEO Surveyor is up for preliminary design review at NASA in September.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft. NEO Surveyor is the space-based component of the NEO Surveillance Mission NEOSM), which involves processing and analyzing infrared images collected by NEO Surveyor, comparing them to contemporary and archived data collected by other surveys (ground-based telescopes and the NEOWISE mission – which is still in operation), and detecting asteroids moving through them. This work will be done by an investigation team led by Amy Mainzer at the University of Arizona, supported by the California Institute of Technology’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC). NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Planetary Missions Program Office is managing the NEO Surveyor project.

It appears that, as reflected in its fiscal 2023 budget request, NASA is prioritizing other planetary missions under way: Dragonfly to Saturn’s moon Titan, the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter (cost has recently risen from $4.25 billion to $5 billion), and Mars sample return (which certainly will cost more – likely considerably more) than Clipper. Or maybe it’s the White House Office of Management and Budget that has done the prioritizing. OMB is not transparent about its decision-making process.

Last June, I reported that the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request for NASA’s planetary defense program – including NEO Surveyor – was $197 million. NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson had reported to NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group that month that the budget run-out for planetary defense over the next five years was $197 million for FY 2022, $220.7 for 2023, $226.5 million for 2024, $224.2 million for 2025, and $170.6 million in 2026.

Don’t hold me to this number, but I believe NASA’s planetary defense program got $187 million for fiscal 2022. The Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request for the planetary defense program is $84 million – including the $39.9 million for NEO Surveyor and $42 million for NEO observations.

What happened?

In recent years, NEO detections have greatly increased, due to increased funding for observing. NASA officially established a NEO survey program, now called the NEOO Program, in 1998 in response to congressional direction. The Program has multiple mandates, including:

  •  A 1994 request from House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to develop a plan to discover, characterize and catalog within ten years (to the extent practicable), the potentially threatening comets and asteroids larger than 1 kilometer in diameter.
  • A 1998 congressional directive to conduct a program to discover at least 90 percent of 1-kilometer-diameter or larger NEOs within ten years. (This mandate has been met).
  • A directive in NASA’s fiscal year 2005 authorization act to provide an analysis of alternatives to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects and develop a program by December 28, 2006, to survey 90 percent of the potentially hazardous objects measuring at least 140 meters in diameter by the end of 2020. In addition, this legislation directed NASA to submit an analysis of alternatives that NASA could employ to divert an object on a likely collision course with Earth. (NASA is in the process of complying with these directives.)
  • A directive in U.S. National Space Policy of June 28, 2010, to pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet and to identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects. (NASA is in the process of complying with this directive.)

The NEOO Program started as a subset of the Planetary Astronomy Research and Analysis Program and then operated on its own average budget of about $4 million per year from fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year 2010, at which point the program budget was about $4 million.

In April 2010, the President announced a new goal for NASA: a human mission to an asteroid. Consequently, the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request included, and Congress authorized, $20.4 million for an expanded NASA NEO Observations Program. The Program was again expanded in fiscal year 2014, with a budget of $40 million, and in fiscal year 2016, with a budget of $50 million. Ever since then, funding for NEO observations has more or less held steady. At this point, my understanding is that ground-based NEO observations are pretty much plateauing. NASA’s planetary defense program, in addition to NEO observations, has funded the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, a mission now on its way to impact with the asteroid Dimorphos in September, and, finally, NEO Surveyor.

A graph on the NASA Center for Near Earth Object Studies web site shows the increase in NEO detections year by year. As of March 5, NEO detections totaled 28,457 (95 percent or more discovered by NASA-funded surveys).

Why slow down now? I don’t get it.

The planetary defense community learned a lot from the impact of an asteroid over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2015. It was 20 meters (66 feet) in size. It exploded in the atmosphere, releasing a blast of kinetic energy equivalent to 400-500 tons of TNT. A 660-pound fragment of the asteroid was recovered from the bottom of an ice-covered lake.

Typical science-fiction-movie scenarios for cataclysmic impacts of asteroids or comets with Earth place the impacts in or near densely populated areas. Asteroid impacts are common and randomly distributed over Earth – see this map of “fireballs” detected by April 15, 1988, to March 28, 2022) – and about 75 percent of Earth is covered by water.

But what if? What if even a small asteroid, like the Chelyabinsk object, exploded over, say, Manhattan, or downtown Tokyo? No one was killed by the Chelyabinsk impact, but many were injured by flying broken glass. Think about the glass in just a single Manhattan or Tokyo skyscraper. Are skyscrapers asteroid-impact-hardened? I doubt it.

We know how to defend Earth from asteroid impacts: find them early, find them early, find them early. While the consensus is that catastrophic impacts would be caused by NEOs 140 meters or larger in size, experts say impacts of objects 50 meters or even smaller could cause significant damage, depending on where they might occur. NEO Surveyor would greatly speed up detection of objects in this size range.

At the top level, NASA has made the Artemis program to return people to the Moon a priority. This program now accounts for about a third of NASA’s budget – $26 billion is requested for NASA in 2023. There is no evidence of widespread public support for returning people to the Moon (or sending them to Mars). Yet NASA is forging ahead with Artemis.

The Artemis program is starting to remind me of Grendel’s mother. You’ll recall that Grendel was the man-eating monster slain by Beowulf – the 6th century Scandinavian hero of legend. In some versions of the legend, Grendel hauled the bodies of the men he killed nightly to feed his nameless mother, who dwelled in a pit and seemed to have a bottomless appetite for human flesh.

In the case of Artemis, does it have a bottomless appetite for money? NASA’s inspector general has repeatedly reported that various elements of Artemis have been over budget and behind schedule for several years. Yet Artemis moves forward.

Since I no longer live and work in Washington, D.C., and have not spent time at NASA headquarters in D.C. since before I moved to Sarasota, Florida, in 2017, I no longer have access to gossip in hallways and at meetings. So, I don’t really know what’s going on – and gossip only goes so far, anyway. But stay tuned – perhaps Congress will fix the budget for NEO Surveyor. Perhaps.

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