White House releases near Earth object action plan

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WASHINGTON — A report released by the White House June 20 outlines a set of goals to address the small but “high-consequence” threat posed by near Earth objects (NEOs), but does not commit to spending more money to achieve them.

The “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” document, released by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy in cooperation with other federal agencies, including NASA, establishes goals for searching for NEOs and preparing for any possible impacts. It builds upon a strategy document released by the Obama administration in 2016.

The new report outlines five goals for government agencies to achieve: enhance NEO detection, tracking and characterization techniques; improve NEO modeling and prediction capabilities; develop technologies for deflecting or disrupting NEOs; increase international coordination on NEO issues; and strengthen emergency procedures and protocols in the event of a threatened impact.

The document, while laying out a number of milestones for each of the goals, doesn’t include specific measures for achieving those goals or schedules for doing so. “This plan isn’t about any specific system,” said Lindley Johnson, head of NASA’s planetary defense coordination office, in a teleconference with reporters. “It is an overall structure across the interagency on what areas need to be looked at to determine what the current capabilities are and what the gaps may be.”

The report also doesn’t call for additional funding to support work to achieve those goals. “Most of the actions we’re calling for in here are things that can be done within existing resources that are already allocated,” said Aaron Miles of OSTP. “This is more about figuring out how to use those resources smartly, and do so in a coordinated and cooperative way across the United States government.”

NASA, though, has enjoyed an increase in funding for planetary defense activities. That work, which several years ago received only a few million dollars a year, received $60 million in fiscal year 2017, with funding for 2018 pending approval of an operating plan after the passage of an omnibus spending bill three months ago.

The administration’s 2019 budget request seeks $150 million for planetary defense, of which $90 million would go to the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. DART will fly a spacecraft to the asteroid Didymos, impacting a small moon orbiting the asteroid to demonstrate the effectiveness of the “kinetic impactor” technique for deflecting threatening NEOs. Johnson said DART was on track for a launch in 2021, arriving at Didymos in October 2022.

NASA has also been studying a dedicated space-based observatory for discovering and characterizing NEOs, called NEOCam, to help achieve the goal of finding all NEOs at least 140 meters across. That mission was one of the finalists in the latest competition for Discovery-class planetary science missions and, while not selected in January 2017, received funding to continue mission studies.

NEOCam remains in this “extended Phase A” study phase, Johnson said, to reduce risk in key technologies like its infrared camera and data processing systems. He didn’t disclose when NASA might decide to proceed with development of NEOCam as a directed mission or allow it to participate in the next Discovery competition.

NEOCam is billed as a follow-on to NEOWISE, an extended mission for NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft devoted to studying near Earth objects. NEOWISE has faced some recent criticism after research led by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, concluded that size estimates for asteroids observed by NEOWISE were inaccurate.

Johnson defended the NEOWISE effort. “The scientific community tells us what the credibility of that analysis is. All of the NEOWISE work has been peer-reviewed,” he said. “Their database is very large and extensively utilized by the overall scientific community as the best data available on the population of near Earth asteroids as we know them.”

While NEOs are familiar to NASA, it’s been a learning experience for other agencies, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is used to dealing with more terrestrial disasters.

“We recognize that an asteroid impact is a low-probability but a high-consequence event,” said Leviticus Lewis of FEMA. “An asteroid impact scenario is a unique emergency and may be just different enough that some degree of preparedness specific to this threat is necessary.”

FEMA has participated in several tabletop exercises related to asteroid impact threats as part of a general education effort to better understand what it needs to do to prepare. The agency, he said, already has some experience with space-related events, such as space weather and uncontrolled reentries of large spacecraft.

However, FEMA is unlikely to develop a specific standalone plan for dealing with NEOs, Lewis said. “We’re not specifically working on a special plan for asteroids, but trying to work efficiently and use what we have and see what we can do to make sure our emergency managers are prepared for this very unique emergency.”