NASA has begun a fact-finding effort to determine how best to detect, track, catalogue and characterize near-Earth asteroids and comets — and what can be done to deflect an object found headed on a course to strike our planet.

Selected experts from a variety of fields gathered at a NASA workshop on Near-Earth Object (NEO) Detection, Characterization and Threat Mitigation, held June 26-29 here. Touted as a unique, “idea-gathering” event under direction of the U.S. Congress, the meeting is intended to provide lawmakers with an “executable program” for dealing with such asteroids in an orderly and timely fashion.

Workshop attendees noted the need for such a program is highlighted by the large asteroid that is due to pass close to Earth July 3. Discovered in late 2004, Asteroid 2004 XP14 will slip by Earth , passing just beyond the Moon’s average distance from Earth.

NASA is on a fast track to provide by year’s end an initial report to Congress that includes an analysis of possible alternatives for diverting objects that are on a likely collision course with Earth.

Congress has asked NASA to use its “unique competence” to help establish a warning and mitigation strategy for facing the potential hazard.

A key agenda item at the workshop was putting in place the survey skills to spot NEOs equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter. In plotting out the survey program, ground-based and space-based equipment will be accessed to achieve 90-percent completion of a NEO catalogue within 15 years.

The data gathering is viewed by many as a turning point in shaping a NEO action plan.

“It is historic in the sense that it’s the first time the U.S. government has ever had a formal interest in the problem — in the global problem, that is — in the detection, tracking and beginning to look at the mitigation issues. I think that’s very significant,” said William Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp. and a member of the workshop’s mitigation working group.

Russell Schweickart, former Apollo astronaut and chairman of the B612 Foundation, agreed. The B612 Foundation is a group of scientists, technologists, astronomers, astronauts and other specialists that hope to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015.

“This is really the first time that NASA will have ever put the words ‘NASA’ and ‘asteroid deflection’ together internally … so it’s a very positive move,” Schweickart said in a pre-workshop interview. He later advised workshop participants that “this isn’t a national issue … this is a planetary issue.” Schweickart added that with decades of warning time likely, “this is not a last-minute search-and-destroy mission.” There ha s been no shortage of ideas on how to fend off unfriendly fire from the cosmos. Use of laser beams, space tugboats, a gravity tractor and solar sails , as well as powerful anti-NEO bombs, and conventional and nuclear weapons all have been suggested. Ailor said creative ways to deflect Earth-harming NEOs are far from being exhausted.

“People have put a lot of concepts on the table over time,” Ailor said. “Now we’re beginning to try and develop an organized way of looking at those things and finding out which ones are really viable in the short-term, medium-term, and what technologies do we need to protect and develop for the long-term as well.”

Making detection of NEOs the first priority was decided early in the workshop. The on going, three-part mantra agreed to by attendees is simple and direct: “Find them early … and find them early … and find them early.”

Former shuttle astronaut Tom Jones, who also attended the meeting, has had a long standing interest in asteroids.

“The NEO workshop this week is both informative — with the latest NEO data presented by experts in the field — and encouraging as the space agency seems intent on developing realistic alternatives for detecting most of the potentially hazardous NEOs,” he said. “That’s good … Congress expects NASA to answer the mail on how to deal with NEOs. This meeting is an important move forward in beginning to materially address the hazard.”