House committee questions proposed delay in NASA asteroid mission

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WASHINGTON — Members of the House Science Committee used a hearing about the planetary science decadal survey to criticize a proposal in NASA’s budget request to delay work on a space telescope to track near Earth objects (NEOs).

The fiscal year 2023 budget request, released March 28, proposed just $39.9 million for NEO Surveyor, compared to the request of $143.2 million for the mission in 2022. NASA had projected spending $174.2 million on the mission in 2023 in the runout included in its fiscal year 2022 budget request.

The funding decrease, NASA said in the request, reflected plans to delay the mission by two years, with a launch now no earlier than 2028. NEO Surveyor would place a small telescope with infrared detectors in space to more effectively search for NEOs and meet a goal established in a 2005 NASA authorization act to detect 90% of potentially hazardous objects at least 140 meters across.

That delay, as well as plans to terminate a Mars orbiter called the International Mars Ice Mapper, was needed “to support higher priority missions” in NASA’s planetary science portfolio, including Mars Sample Return and Europa Clipper, the agency explained in the budget submission.

Weeks later, though, the planetary science decadal survey endorsed continued development of NEO Surveyor. “NASA should fully support the development, timely launch, and subsequent operation of NEO Surveyor to achieve the highest priority planetary defense NEO survey goals,” the final report of the decadal survey stated.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, mentioned the conflict between the decadal survey’s recommendations and the budget proposal at a May 26 hearing about the report.

“The recommendation to fully support the development, timely launch and subsequent operation of the NEO Surveyor mission is particularly important as NASA proposes to slash the NEO Surveyor mission budget and even reprogram existing appropriated funds from the current fiscal year,” he said in his opening statement. Such a reprogramming would have to be approved by Congress in an operating plan for fiscal year 2022 yet to be released by the agency.

Later in the hearing, one of the co-chairs of the decadal survey steering committee reaffirmed its support for NEO Surveyor. “Our report strongly endorsed that mission,” said Philip Christensen of Arizona State University. “The consensus was very much that this is an important mission. It’s crucial to the people here on Earth. We need to understand and identify these objects.”

“We continue to urge NASA and Congress to ensure that that mission gets funded and launched in a timely fashion,” he said in response to a question from Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the full committee.

Lucas then asked if that meant that Congress should maintain funding for the mission to keep it on its earlier schedule. “We think it needs to happen and it should happen quickly,” Christensen responded.

Neither House nor Senate appropriators brought up NEO Surveyor during their hearings earlier in the month on the NASA budget request, or have released details yet about their appropriations bills for fiscal year 2023.

There was broad support in general for the recommendations of the decadal survey at the hearing, with only a few questions. Babin did ask about the report’s conclusion that cost caps for the Discovery and New Frontiers lines of competed planetary science missions be raised, to $800 million for Discovery and $1.6 billion for New Frontiers.

Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute, the other co-chair of the decadal, said the proposed increase reflected a desire to include all costs, including operations, within the cap. “The intent is to get the cost cap back in line with what the true life cycle costs for these missions is turning out to be,” she said, noting that recent missions in both programs have had total costs that “are consistent with the cost cap structure we propose in the report this time.”