2018-12-03 23:31:22 UTC
(In Arthur Clarke's "The Hammer of God", and other books,
he was sure this protection was going to be afforded!)
(as usual, go to the citation for the graphics.)
Astronaut says a neglected telescope is NASA's best chance of defending
Earth from 'city killer' asteroids — 'for God's sake, fund it'
Dave Mosher Dec. 2, 2018, 11:20 AM
astronaut russell rusty schweickart 2006 GettyImages 71527543
Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, a retired NASA astronaut, speaks at an
event in July 2006. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Small asteroids can strike Earth with the force of many nuclear weapons
and destroy entire cities.
A small fraction of such asteroids is estimated to have been found, but
NASA is supposed to find 90% of them by 2020.
Retired astronaut Rusty Schweickart says a relatively inexpensive space
telescope, called the Near-Earth Object Camera, could find these space
rocks — and quickly.
NASA has denied full funding to NEOCam multiple times because the
agency's mission selection process is weighted toward scientific firsts.
NEOCam's supporters say the telescope needs just $40 million more in
NASA's budget to launch into space.
It's up to President Trump and Congress to raise NASA's budget enough to
support the mission.
A former NASA astronaut says the agency he used to work for has a duty
to protect civilians from killer asteroids, but that it isn't meeting
The threat of asteroid strikes might seem as abstract as outer space
itself. But the risk, while infrequent, is real — and potentially more
deadly than the threat posed by some of the most powerful nuclear
weapons ever detonated.
Risk of death from above
In 1908, a space rock estimated to be several hundred feet in diameter
screamed into Earth's atmosphere at many thousands of miles per hour,
causing the foreign body to explode over the remote Tunguska region of
Russia with the force of a thermonuclear weapon. The resulting blast
flattened trees over an area nearly twice the size of New York City.
A photograph of trees blasted down by the Tunguska Event in
More recently, in 2013, a roughly 70-foot-wide meteorite shot over
Read more: How large an asteroid must be to destroy a city, state,
country, or the planet
The concussive fireball smashed windows for miles around and sent more
than 1,000 people in multiple cities to hospitals, several dozen of them
with serious injuries.
We know they're out there
NASA is poignantly aware of such risks — and so are lawmakers.
In 2005 Congress made one of the agency's seven core goals to track down
90% of asteroids 460 feet (140 meters) and larger, which could lead to a
worse-than-Tunguska-level event. The deadline for this legally mandated
goal is 2020.
So far, however, telescopes on Earth and in space have found less than
one third of these near-Earth objects (NEOs) and NASA will almost
certainly fail to hit its deadline.
Tunguska New York City Asteroid Impact Comparison
Equivalent area of destruction for a Tunguska-sized asteroid over New
York City. NASA
Practically, this means tens of thousands of NEOs big enough to wipe out
a city have yet to be found, according to a June 2018 report published
by the White House.
The same report concludes that even with current and planned
capabilities, less than half of such space rocks will be located by 2033.
We have the technology to confront the problem
Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, an aerospace engineer retired astronaut who
flew on the Apollo 9 mission, says there is a solution in waiting for
this problem: NASA can launch the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam),
which is a small infrared observatory, into space.
"It's a critical discovery telescope to protect life on Earth, and it's
ready to go," Schweickart told Business Insider at The Economist Space
Summit on November 1.
NEOCam's designers have pitched the mission to NASA multiple times. The
mission has received several million dollars here and there to continue
its development in response to those proposals, but the agency has
denied full funding in every instance on account of it not being the
best purely science-focused mission.
"For God's sake, fund it as a mainline program. Don't put it in yet
another competition with science," Schweickart said. "This is a public
How NEOCam would hunt for 'city killer' asteroids
neocam asteroid hunter spacecraft discovery nasa jpl caltech
An artist's concept of the NEOCam asteroid-hunting
Space rocks reflect sunlight.
Telescopes that are looking in the right place at the right time can
detect a dot of that light sneaking across the blackness of space. This
allows scientists to calculate an NEO's mass, speed, orbit, and the odds
that it will eventually smack into Earth.
Small NEOs, though, aren't very bright. This means a telescope has to be
big, see a lot of the sky, and use very advanced hardware to pick them
up. These monstrous telescopes take a very long time to build and
calibrate and are budget-crushingly expensive.
Take the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), for example, which is
one of Earth's best current hopes of finding killer asteroids. The
project broke ground in 2015 and is expected to cost about half a
billion dollars to build. Based on its current construction schedule, it
won't be fully operational until late 2021, at the soonest, or able to
fulfill the 90% detection goal set by Congress until the mid-2030s.
Read more: A 5-billion-ton iron meteorite once slammed into Greenland —
and scientists found its Paris-size crater under the ice
LSST, like all ground-based observatories, also comes with two major
The first: "You can't see asteroids near the sun. You're blinded by the
sky," Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute and a
scientist on the NEOCam team, previously told Business Insider. "Right
now we have to wait until those pop out in front of us."
Sykes said the second snag is that ground-based telescopes mainly rely
on visible light for detection. "If [an asteroid] has a dark surface,
it's going to be very hard to see," he said.
neocam infrared camera sensor teledyne
The infrared camera sensor for the proposed NEOCam asteroid-hunting
NEOCam addresses these two problems by being in space, where Sykes says
"you're not blinded by the sky."
The telescope would also use an advanced, high-resolution infrared
camera. Infrared is a longer wavelength of light that's invisible to our
eyes, but if a source is strong enough — say, a roaring fire — we can
feel invisible light as warmth on our skin.
Asteroids warmed by the sun, radioactive elements, or both will emit
infrared light, even when they're too small or dark for ground-based
telescopes to see. Which means NEOCam could spot them merely by their
This approach is already proven to work.
The prime example is NASA's eight-year-old Wide-field Infrared Survey
Explorer (WISE) telescope, which has found roughly 275 NEOs, including
50 potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHOs (so named because they come
within 4.6 million miles of Earth at some point in their orbits).
near earth asteroid census chart graphic wise nasa jpl
Fewer asteroids exist than previously thought, but smaller space rocks
elude easy detection.NASA/JPL-Caltech
However, it's a less powerful telescope, has a smaller field of view, an
older camera that requires cryogenic cooling that eventually runs out
(NEOCam's doesn't need it), and wasn't designed just to hunt asteroids.
The telescope, now called NEOWISE, may end operations in December 2018.
NEOCam is Earth's best immediate hope for quick detection of asteroids
According to a recent study in The Astronomical Journal, neither NEOCam
nor LSST alone would ever achieve Congress' 90% detection mandate — only
by working together, the research found, could the observatories achieve
that goal over a decade.
But NEOCam offers significant upgrades to the situation under LSST.
In its latest pitch to NASA, the NEOCam team proposed to launch in 2021
and find two-thirds of missing objects in the larger-than-460-feet (140
meters) category within four years, or about a decade ahead of LSST's
Less than 70% of all NEOs that are 460 feet (140 meters) or larger have
not been found, according to a report published by the White House's
National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) in December 2016. This
amounts to about 25,000 nearby asteroids and roughly 2,300 potentially
The NTSC report suggests that an orbiting telescope like NEOCam could
also help root out asteroids that'd strike with a force somewhere
between a Tunguska-type event (occurring about once every 100-200 years)
and a Chelyabinsk-type event (occurring about once every 10 years), of
which less than 1% have been located.
So if launching a more-capable replacement for NEOWISE is a top
priority, why might NASA not fully fund NEOCam for a 2024 launch?
'NASA has a responsibility to do it'
greenland asteroid impact illustration kjaer5HR
An illustration of asteroids careening toward Earth.Natural History
Museum of Denmark/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
The team behind NEOCam has pitched the mission to NASA three times — in
2006, 2010, and 2015 — and three times NASA has punted on fully funding
The last instance it was denied, sources told Business Insider the
proposal had no major technical weaknesses. Instead, it was a case of
trying to jam a square peg into a round bureaucratic hole.
The NASA competition it was a part of, called Discovery, values
scientific firsts — not ensuring humanity's safety — and thus did not
grant NEOCam nearly $450 million to develop its spacecraft and a rocket
with which to launch it. (NASA instead picked two new space missions to
explore the solar system: Lucy, a probe that will visit swarms of
ancient asteroids lurking near Jupiter, and Psyche, which will orbit the
all-metal core of a dead planet.)
For Schweickart's part, he doesn't care about the distinction.
"NASA has a responsibility to do it, and it's not happening," he said.
"It needs to be put into the NASA budget both by NASA and by the Congress."
Read more: Trump just signed a law that maps out NASA's long-term future
— but a critical element is missing
NEOCam did get $35 million in the 2018 government funding bill to keep
itself going, but proponents say this is not enough to get the telescope
to a launch pad.
"In the meantime, NEOCam is in a zombie state and all the while Earth
waits inevitably in the crosshairs," Richard Binzel, a planetary
scientist and expert on the hazards posed by asteroids at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, told Business Insider in an email.
Binzel is one of three scientists who wrote a recent op-ed in Space News
in support of fully funding the project, even though they're not on the
project's team. Binzel and others argue NEOCam could get launched by
raising the House of Representatives' proposed budget for NASA planetary
defense by another $40 million (up from a $160 million to $200 million)
and by sharing a rocket ride with a spacecraft called IMAP, which the
agency plans to launch in 2024.
By working in coordination with ground-based telescopes, NEOCam could
achieve nearly 70% detection in four years, and the agency's target of
90% detection in less than 10 years.
Finding such money is not easy though. Binzel said the infrequency of
asteroid strikes makes it politically uncostly to instead fund other
initiatives year after year.
"But the consequences of being wrong are irresponsible, especially when
the capability to gain the necessary knowledge is easily within our
grasp," he said. "We should simply act like responsible adults and 'just
do it.' What are we waiting for?"
It's now up to President Trump and Congress
chelyabinsk asteroid simulation darrel robertson sc15 nasa
A simulation of a 66-foot-wide asteroid burning up in Earth's
atmosphere.Darrel Robertson/NASA Ames
Schweickart acknowledged that NASA's budgeting and culture has, for
decades, been focused on pushing top-tier scientific exploration and
that deviating from this norm — Congressional mandate or not — isn't easy.
"You're going upstream. You're fighting a pretty strong headwind within
NASA," he said, adding that pulling money from science budgets to fund
anything is extremely unpopular. "But government agencies are not at
liberty to ask for increases in their budget."
Schweickart and fellow retired astronaut Ed Lu tried years ago to
end-run around the problem by co-founding the B612 Foundation, which is
a nonprofit dedicated to developing NEO-detecting capabilities. But the
group tabled its longest-running (and most expensive) idea, the Sentinel
space telescope, in part to improve NEOCam's chances of getting funded.
On Oct. 29, the organization even publicized its strong support for
lawmakers fully funding its rival.
The public also appears to be on-board with NASA making asteroid
detection projects like NEOCam happen.
In a June poll by Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of 2,500
American adults surveyed said that asteroid monitoring should be a top
priority for NASA. (Only monitoring climate change was higher.)
It remains to be seen what the Trump administration will decide to do
with NEOCam in the next NASA budget, and if Congress authorizes that
"That's a February discussion," Stephen Jurczyk, NASA's associate
administrator, told Business Insider at the Economist Space Summit. "All
of that's all embargoed until the president releases his budget to
Jurczyk acknowledged the tension between NASA's duty to locate dangerous
asteroids along with internal changes required to make that work happen.
"It is to some extent a cultural issue, where we kind of have this
mentality of pure science and pure competition," he said. "I think we're
starting to evolve to a more diverse and more balanced approach between
pure science and other things that we need to do."
The question is whether those changes will happen before the next
Tunguska-type asteroid arrives at Earth. Given enough warning, we might
fly out to such a space rock and prevent a calamity or, if there isn't
enough time for that, try to move people out of harm's way.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Schweickart's
spaceflight experience. He flew on Apollo 9 but did not fly on a Skylab
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