NASA is on the lookout for ways to fend off Earth-threatening Near-Earth Objects. The space agency has issued a call for papers May 15 that, among a range of topics, would help sort out possible alternatives to divert an object if found to be on a likely collision course with Earth.

A U.S. Congress go-ahead on the matter is tied to the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 passed by Congress late last year, and subsequently signed by the President.

"The U.S. Congress has declared that the general welfare and security of the United States require that the unique competence of NASA be directed to detecting, tracking, cataloguing, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids and comets in order to provide warning and mitigation of the potential hazard of such near-Earth objects to the Earth," the Act states.

The Act directs the NASA Administrator to plan, develop, and implement a Near-Earth Object Survey program to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth objects (NEOs) equal to or greater than 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter in order to assess the threat of such near-Earth objects to the Earth.

Engaging the experts

NASA's call for papers and selection of best ideas will lead to a NEO Detection, Characterization and Threat Mitigation workshop, to be held in a few months time. This workshop is being organized in support of NASA's Office of Program Analysis & Evaluation study in response to the congressional direction.

The four-day workshop is to engage experts from the NEO scientific and technical communities to identify the fullest possible set of alternatives for meeting congressional direction. Three focus areas of the workshop are:

  • Detection, Tracking and Cataloging NEOs
  • Characterization of NEOs, and
  • Deflection or other forms of NEO Threat Mitigation

An objective of the workshop is to wrestle with a number of issues, such as what are current U.S. and international capabilities to discover and track NEOs? How does warning time vary with object size for an object on a likely collision course?

Additionally, the workshop would delve into possible need for space-based systems--do they provide advantages over ground-based detection and tracking systems? Furthermore, can amateur or other astronomers assist with discovery and tracking? How can they be encouraged to do so...perhaps using cash awards for spotting new objects?

Deflection options

In the area of deflection and threat Mitigation of NEOs, the workshop would scope out key options.

For one, what is the ability of a proposed concept to characterize, either remotely or on-the-spot, a NEO for factors related to mitigation, including the size, composition and structure? Also, how best to mitigate the impact effects of a Near-Earth Object found to be on a likely collision course with Earth during a determined time period in the future?

NASA's call for ideas in abstract submission form is open until May 26. Those selected will be required to submit a full white paper by June 25. The workshop location and dates are yet to be determined, but penciled in for the late June-July time frame.