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Astronaut: NASA must fund this mission to protect Earth from asteroids



astronaut russell rusty schweickart 2006 GettyImages 71527543
“Rusty” Schweickart, a retired NASA astronaut, speaks at an event
in July 2006.

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
  • Retired astronaut Rusty Schweickart says a
    relatively inexpensive space telescope, called the Near-Earth
    Object Camera, could find these space rocks — and
  • NASA has denied full funding to NEOCam multiple times because the
    agency’s mission selection process is weighted against the
  • 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 that obligation.

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
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.

photograph of trees blasted down by the Tunguska Event in


More recently, in 2013, a roughly 70-foot-wide meteorite shot

over Chelyabinsk
, Russia. The concussive fireball smashed
countless windows and sent more than 1,000 people in
multiple cities to hospitals, several dozen of them with serious

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
area of destruction for a Tunguska-sized asteroid over New York


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
less than half
of such space rocks will be located by 2033.

Read more:
A 5-billion-ton iron meteorite once slammed into Greenland — and
scientists found its Paris-size crater under the ice

We have the technology to confront the problem

Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, a retired astronaut who flew on the
Apollo 9 and Skylab missions, 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 safety program.”

How NEOCam would hunt for ‘city killer’ asteroids

neocam asteroid hunter spacecraft discovery nasa jpl caltech
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

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

Read more:
How large asteroids must be to destroy a city, state, country, or
the planet

LSST, like all ground-based observatories, also comes with two
major limitations.

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
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 heat

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 at least 230 NEOs and 49
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
asteroids exist than previously thought, but smaller space rocks
elude easy detection.


However, it’s a less powerful telescope, has a smaller field of
view, an older camera that requires cryogenic cooling (NEOCam’s
does not), 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

According to a recent
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

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 schedule.

Roughly 72% 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 hazardous ones.

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

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

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 telescope.

The last instance it was denied full funding, 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 done 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.

Yet Binzel said the infrequency of asteroid strikes makes it easy
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

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

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 expensive) idea,
the Sentinel space
, in part to improve NEOCam’s chances. On Oct. 29,
the organization publicized its strong support
for lawmakers fully funding the telescope.

The public appears to be on-board with NASA making asteroid
detection projects like NEOCam happen.

In 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 funding.

“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 Congress.”

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 have a chance to fly out to such a space rock and prevent a

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