A new report calls on NASA to establish a Planetary Defense Coordination Office to lead national and international efforts in protecting Earth against impacts by asteroids and comets.

The final report of the Ad-Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense of the NASA Advisory Council was delivered to the Council this month, proposing five recommendations that suggest how the space agency should organize, acquire, investigate, prepare, and lead national and international efforts in planetary defense against near-Earth objects.

"This was a very important step in the process of the United States Government defining its role in protection of life from this occasional, but devastating natural hazard,? former astronaut Russell Schweickart told SPACE.com. "Happily, in the instance of asteroid impacts, this is a natural disaster which can be prevented?only, however, if we properly prepare and work together with other nations around the world."

Schweickart, who served as co-chair of the task force, said the new report and its recommendations to NASA combined new information with previous studies from the past decade. 

The task force met in July to discuss the need for a planetary defense office at NASA. Their final report was submitted to the space agency on Oct. 6.

"With the support of the Administration and the Congress, the U.S. will be in the position of being able to work with and provide leadership in protecting life on Earth from these preventable cosmic disasters," he said.

The task force's five recommendations are:

  • Organize for Effective Action on Planetary Defense: NASA should establish an organizational element to focus on the issues, activities and budget necessary for effective planetary defense planning; to acquire the required capabilities, to include development of identification and mitigation processes and technologies; and to prepare for leadership of the U.S. and international responses to the impact hazard.
  • Acquire Essential Search, Track, and Warning Capabilities: NASA should significantly improve the nation?s discovery and tracking capabilities for early detection of potential NEO impactors, and for tracking them with the precision required for high confidence in potential impact assessments.
  • Investigate the Nature of the Impact Threat: To guide development of effective impact mitigation techniques, NASA must acquire a better understanding of NEO characteristics by using existing and new science and exploration research capabilities, including ground-based observations, impact experiments, computer simulations, and in situ asteroid investigation.
  • Prepare to Respond to Impact Threats: To prepare an adequate response to the range of potential impact scenarios, NASA should conduct a focused range of activities, from in-space testing of innovative NEO deflection technologies to providing assistance to those agencies responsible for civil defense and disaster response measures.
  • Lead U.S. Planetary Defense Efforts in National and International Forums: NASA should provide leadership for the U.S. government to address planetary defense issues in interagency, public education, media, and international forums, including conduct of necessary impact research, informing the public of impact threats, working toward an internationally coordinated response, and understanding the societal effects of a potential NEO impact. 

Funding needs

The seven-person Ad Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense was established in April and reported to the NASA Advisory Council. The NAC provides the NASA Administrator with counsel and advice on programs and issues of importance to the space agency.

The NASA Advisory Council has approved the task force report. However, there?s still a long way to go in the sense that there is no obligation on the part of the NASA Administrator to follow the recommendations.

 

Still, the seven-person team writing the report has elevated the NEO issue, helping to better identify how NASA should further address planetary defense.

The task force was chaired by Schweickart and fellow former astronaut Thomas Jones, with other members representing academia, a space research institute, and NASA itself.

In the final report, the task force found that a planetary defense program plan is likely to require an annual budget of approximately $250 million to $300 million per year during the next decade.

That funding would be needed to meet the Congress-mandated search goal of spotting 460-feet (140-meter) wide NEOs, as well as to execute selected NEO characterization missions; develop and demonstrate NEO deflection capabilities; and develop the analytic and simulation capacity necessary for NASA?s planetary defense role.

"Once the search for potentially hazardous objects is substantially complete, the task shifts to ongoing monitoring and catalog maintenance," the report states.

After flight demonstrations of the primary deflection concepts are completed, further experiments would be integrated into scientific or exploration missions. The planetary defense program budget could then recede to operations and maintenance levels, approximately $50 million to $75 million annually, the report explains.

The task force report "strongly recommends" that the cost of NASA planetary defense activities be explicitly budgeted by the administration and funded by the Congress as a separate agency budget line, not diverted from existing NASA science, exploration, or other mission budgets.

Driving philosophy

As explained in the task force report, the "driving philosophy" behind the national and international defense against NEOs should be, "find them early."

Early detection of NEOs ? especially those larger than 140 meters in size ? is key to mounting an effective and cost-effective planetary defense effort. An adequate search, detection and tracking capability could find hazardous objects several years or decades before they threaten impact.

Early detection and follow-up tracking of hazardous NEOs eliminates any need for a standing defense capability by mission-ready deflection spacecraft with their high attendant costs, the report points out.

While the task force report underscores the importance of NASA taking a leadership role in planetary defense, there?s no obligation by NASA leadership, or the White House to follow the recommendations. 

The next shoe to drop on dealing with the NEO issue is expected to come mid-month by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It has been deliberating on how best the U.S. government should move out on in-coming NEOs hazardous to Earth.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.