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Asteroid Defense: NASA to Formulate Planetary Protection Plan

VAIL, Colorado - NASA has begun a fact-finding appraisal of how best to detect,track, catalogue and characterize near-Earth asteroids and comets--and what canbe done to deflect an object found on course to strike our planet.

Theneed to prepare is highlighted this week as astronomers watch a large asteroidthat will pass close to Earth on July 3.

Selectedexperts from a variety of fields are here this week at a NASA workshop onNear-Earth Object (NEO) Detection, Characterization and Threat Mitigation. Themeeting is a unique, "idea gathering" event being carried out under directionof the U.S. Congress. The intent is to provide lawmakers with an "executableprogram"--but also one that will clearly need funds to implement that program inan orderly and timely fashion.

NASAis on a fast-track to provide by year's end an initial report to Congress that includesan analysis of possible alternatives that might be employed to divert an objecton a likely collision course with Earth.

TheU.S. Congress has tagged NASA to use its "unique competence" to deal with thepotential hazard faced by Earth from such celestial wanderers, in order to helpestablish a warning and mitigation strategy.

Anotherchief agenda item on the table is putting in place the survey skills to spotNEOs equal to or greater than 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter. In plottingout that survey program, the merits of ground-based and space-based equipmentare to be mulled over to achieve 90 percent completion of a NEO cataloguewithin 15 years.

Global...not national problem

Thisweek's gathering is viewed by many as a turning-point in shaping a NEO actionplan.

"Itis historic in the sense that it's the first time the U.S. government has ever had a formal interest in the problem, in the global problem, that is, in the detection, tracking and beginning to look at the mitigation issues.I think that's very significant," said William Ailor of The AerospaceCorporation and on the workshop's mitigation working group.

Similarin view was Russell Schweickart, former Apollo astronaut and Chairman of theB612 Foundation. This group consists of scientists, technologists, astronomers,astronauts, and other specialists that want to significantly alter the orbit ofan asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015.

"Thisis really the first time that NASA will have ever put the words NASA andasteroid deflection together internally ... so it's a very positive move,"Schweickart told SPACE.com in a pre-workshop interview. He later advisedworkshop participants that "this isn't a national issue...this is a planetaryissue."

Schweickartadded that, given the likely scenario of decades of warning time, "this is nota last minute search and destroy mission."

Unfriendly fire

There'sbeen no shortage of ideas how to fend off unfriendly fire from the cosmos:laser beams, space tugboats, gravity tractor, and solar sails for example, aswell as using powerful anti-NEO bombs, conventional as well as nuclear.

Ailor,also Director of The Aerospace Corporation's Center for Orbital and ReentryDebris Studies, told SPACE.com that creative ways to deflectEarth-harming NEOs are far from being exhausted.

"Peoplehave put a lot of concepts on the table over time," Ailor said. "Now we'rebeginning to try and develop an organized way of looking at those things andfinding out which ones are really viable in the short-term, medium-term, andwhat technologies do we need to protect and develop for the long-term as well."

Akey message early in the workshop is that detection of NEOs is a firstpriority. The on-going, three-part mantra agreed to by attendees is simple anddirect: "Find them early...and find them early...and find them early." 

Realistic alternatives

Alikely setting is one where a modest Earth impact probability by a NEO is identifieddecades in advance, then, future mitigation technologies would be mostappropriate.

Furthermore,"opportunity science" could be derived from such a response. NASA has aninterest in harvesting NEOs for their minerals as well as siphoning from themwater to further long-range space exploration goals.

Formershuttle astronaut Tom Jones, taking part in the meeting, has had along-standing interest in asteroids and told SPACE.com:

"TheNEO workshop this week is both informative--with the latest NEO data presentedby experts in the field--and encouraging as the space agency seems intenton developing realistic alternatives for detecting most of the potentiallyhazardous NEOs. That's good ... Congress expects NASA to answer the mail on howto deal with NEOs. This meeting is an important move forward in beginning tomaterially address the hazard."

As if awarning shot of sorts, several workshop attendees made note of next week'sclose flyby of Earth of asteroid 2004 XP14. Discovered in late 2004, the spacerock will slip by Earth on July 3, passing just beyond the Moon's averagedistance from Earth.

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