NASA mission to track near Earth objects takes shape
SANTA FE, N.M. — A revamped NASA mission to search for near Earth objects from space has secured funding to start development as the agency works out details about how it will be managed.
The fiscal year 2020 “minibus” spending bill signed into law by President Trump Dec. 20 that provides $22.63 billion for NASA includes $35.6 million to start development of the Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveillance Mission. That mission would fly a small space telescope with an infrared camera to discover and track NEOs, helping identify any that pose an impact risk to the Earth.
That funding will come from the agency’s planetary science funding line, which received more than $2.7 billion in the bill. Neither the bill nor the accompanying report specified funding for NASA’s overall planetary defense programs, which include ground-based telescopic searches for NEOs as well as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission under development to the asteroid Didymos. NASA sought $150 million for planetary defense in its original budget proposal, but did not identify any specific funding for the NEO Surveillance Mission.
That was in part because NASA decided only in September to pursue the NEO Surveillance Mission. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said at a Sept. 23 meeting of the agency’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee that NASA would fund development of the mission as a “directed” one, led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, rather than competed through the Discovery program of planetary science missions.
NEO Surveillance Mission is the successor to NEOCam, a similar mission concept that was one of the finalists in the most recent round of the Discovery program. While NASA did not select NEOCam in early 2017 for development, it did provide funding to allow work to continue on its infrared detectors.
Zurbuchen said at the meeting that the reason for going from NEOCam to NEO Surveillance Mission was because the goals of the mission were not strictly scientific. The mission is designed to meet a congressionally mandated goal to identify all NEOs at least 140 meters in diameter, which represent those large enough to do damage on a regional or global scale in the event of an impact.
“The only reason we want every 140-meter object is not because we need it to do all the science,” he said. “It’s because we want to understand whether one of them is on a collision course over time to Earth.”
The mission, which has an estimated cost of $500–600 million and launch date of 2025, has congressional support beyond the funding provided in the appropriations bill. A NASA authorization bill introduced in the Senate in November directs NASA to build and launch by the end of fiscal year 2025 “a space-based infrared survey telescope that is capable of detecting near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter.”
The decision to pursue the NEO Surveilliance Mission as a directed mission raised questions in September about the role the NEOCam team would play on it, including its principal investigator (PI), Amy Mainzer, who earlier this year moved from JPL to the University of Arizona. “I expect the former PI of NEOCam to have a really crucial role,” Zurbuchen said in September.
In a Dec. 10 statement, the University of Arizona said that Mainzer would serve as the survey director for the mission. The university would have overall scientific leadership for the mission, including responsibility for building the infrared camera and supporting operations after the spacecraft’s launch. JPL will manage the project, with several companies and universities also partnering on the mission.
“This mission would answer a fundamental question: Are there asteroids or comets out there that can cause harm to the Earth over the next century?” Mainzer said in the university statement.