NASA Falling Short of Asteroid Detection Goals

Without more funding, NASA will not meet its goal of tracking 90 percent of all deadly asteroids by 2020, according to a report released today by the National Academy of Sciences.

The agency is on track to soon be able to spot 90 percent of the potentially dangerous objects that are at least a kilometer (.6 miles) wide, a goal previously mandated by Congress.

Asteroids of this size are estimated to strike Earth once every 500,000 years on average and could be capable of causing a global catastrophe if they hit Earth. In 2008, NASA’s Near Earth Object Program spotted a total of 11,323 objects of all sizes.

But without more money in the budget, NASA won’t be able to keep up with a 2005 directive to track 90 percent of objects bigger than 460 feet across. An impact from an asteroid of this size could cause significant damage and be very deadly, particularly if it were to strike near a populated area.

Meeting that goal “may require the building of one or more additional observatories, possibly including a space-based observatory,” according to the report.

The committee that investigated the issue noted that the United States is getting little help from the rest of the world on this front, and isn’t likely to any time soon.

Another report is planned for release by the end of the year that will review what NASA plans to do if we spot a life-threatening asteroid headed our direction.

A summary of the report’s findings:

Congress has mandated that NASA discover 90 percent of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020. The administration has not requested and Congress has not appropriated new funds to meet this objective. Only limited facilities are currently involved in this survey/discovery effort, funded by NASA’s existing budget.

The current near-Earth object surveys cannot meet the goals of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act directing NASA to discover 90 percent of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020.

The orbit-fitting capabilities of the Minor Planet Center are more than capable of handling the observations of the congressionally mandated survey as long as staffing needs are met.

The Arecibo Observatory telescope continues to play a unique role in characterization of NEOs, providing unmatched precision and accuracy in orbit determination and insight into size, shape, surface structure, multiplicity, and other physical properties for objects within its declination coverage and detection range.

The United States is the only country that currently has an operating survey/detection program for discovering near-Earth objects; CanadaGermany are both building spacecraft that may contribute to the discovery of near-Earth objects. However, neither mission will detect fainter or smaller objects than ground-based telescopes.

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