NASA green-lights asteroid-hunting space telescope for 2028 launch

An artist's depiction of the NEO Surveyor spacecraft searching for asteroids.
An artist's depiction of the NEO Surveyor spacecraft searching for asteroids. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

NASA is moving ahead with the development of a spacecraft to hunt for potentially hazardous asteroids and aims to launch by June 2028.

The Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor space telescope has passed a crucial milestone known as a Key Decision Point C review (KDP-C), NASA announced in a Dec. 6 update on the mission. Passing the KDP-C milestone commits NASA to a development cost baseline of $1.2 billion and to targeting a launch no later than June 2028. 

"NEO Surveyor's successful completion of this review furthers NASA's commitment to planetary defense and the search for NEOs that could one day pose an impact threat to Earth," the NASA statement read.

Related: Just how many threatening asteroids are there? It's complicated.

Notably, NEO Surveyor was earlier estimated to cost between $500 million and $600 million, or around half of the new commitment. The NASA statement said that the cost and schedule commitments outlined align the mission with "program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the development project's control." Earlier this year, the project's launch was delayed two years, from 2026, due to agency budget concerns.

The mission is designed to discover 90% of potentially Earth-threatening asteroids and comets 460 feet (140 meters) or larger that come within 30 million miles (48 million kilometers) of Earth's orbit. The spacecraft will carry out the survey while from Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1, a gravitationally stable spot in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) inside the Earth's orbit around the sun.

Scientists estimate that impactors the size of around 0.6 miles, or 1 kilometer, wide could threaten the existence of human civilization. However, these asteroids are relatively rare, and scientists have identified most of them. But there are a great many more medium-size asteroids of the type that NEO Surveyor will detect that could wipe out cities in the event of an impact, and astronomers believe they have found only about half of these space rocks so far.

The NEO Surveyor mission is being led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with the survey investigation to be led by the University of Arizona and program oversight from NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). 

The PDCO was established in 2016 to manage the agency's ongoing efforts in Planetary Defense, which also includes the DART mission that crashed into an asteroid in September.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).