NASA is studying a mission called NEOCam that would help the agency achieve a goal of discovering all near Earth objects at least 140 meters across. Credit: NASA/JPL

WASHINGTON — NASA has approved for development a space telescope to search for near Earth objects as some members of Congress lobby the agency to move up the mission.

NASA announced Dec. 6 that it had confirmed the Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor mission, after passing a programmatic milestone called Key Decision Point C. That allows the mission to proceed into the next phase of its development.

NEO Surveyor will fly a telescope half a meter in diameter equipped with an infrared camera. Operating from the Earth-sun L-1 Lagrange point, 1.5 million kilometers away from the Earth in the direction of the sun, the spacecraft will be able to scan large regions of space to look for NEOs, including those that could be pose future impact risks to the Earth.

The Key Decision Point (KDP) C review, which took place last week, is when the agency sets formal cost and schedule commitments for the mission. NASA said it estimates NEO Surveyor will cost $1.2 billion to development and be ready for launch no later than June 2028.

The cost is double what NASA once projected for NEO Surveyor. When the agency said in September 2019 it would pursue NEO Surveyor as a directed mission, based on a mission concept called NEOCam that was proposed for the Discovery program of competed planetary science missions, agency officials estimated its cost at $500–600 million, launching no earlier than 2025. NASA’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal projected spending $811.2 million on the mission from 2022 through 2026, supporting a launch in 2026.

“The cost and schedule commitments outlined at KDP-C align the NEO Surveyor mission with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the development project’s control,” NASA said in a brief statement announcing the review.

NASA, in its fiscal year 2023 budget request, said it would delay the mission’s launch from 2026 to 2028, seeking just $39.9 million for it in 2023. The 2022 budget proposal had projected spending $174.2 million on it in 2023 to support a 2026 launch. NASA said the delay was part of efforts to shore up “higher priority missions” in its planetary science program, including Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return.

In a Nov. 28 letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, five Republican members of the House Science Committee called the proposed delay in NEO Surveyor “troubling” and sought information on the funding needed to put the mission on schedule to launch in 2026. They noted language in a NASA authorization act included in the CHIPS and Science Act signed into law in August directed NASA to have NEO Surveyor ready for launch no later than the end of March 2026.

“This statutory direction is clear – NASA must prioritize funding the NEO Surveyor project to achieve a 2026 launch within levels appropriated to planetary science,” stated the letter, signed by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the full committee, and Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the space subcommittee, among others.

House and Senate versions of fiscal year 2023 spending bills would partially restore funding for NEO Surveyor. The House bill would provide the mission with $94.9 million and direct NASA to find ways to move up the launch from 2028, while a draft bill from Democratic appropriators in the Senate would provide $80 million and “welcomes NASA’s commitment to a 2026 launch.” Sources familiar with the project say that neither version would provide enough funding to allow NEO Surveyor to launch in 2026.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...