This area will cover relevant news of the threat to the planet from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) including concepts and designs for mitigation. All opinions are those of the author.

10 May 2010

NEO News (05/10/10) Academy Report on NEO Surveys & Hazard Mitigation

From Dave Morrison...

NEO News (05/10/10) Academy Report on NEO Surveys & Hazard Mitigation

Welcome back to NEO News. It has been almost a year since my last email message. Many things relating to NEOs have happened, but I have been delinquent in reporting. I will begin a return to publishing with reports on two major initiatives. The first, discussed in this message, is the completion of a National Research Council report on Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies. This study was carried out at the joint request of NASA and the U.S. Congress, focusing on several issues that have been raised by the House of Representatives in recent years. A major topic was the expanded George E. Brown NEA Survey proposed in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act. The panel also provided for the first time National Academy recommendations on Planetary Defense (also known as Planetary Protection or Impact Hazard Mitigation).

A tangential note on Planetary Defense is the emphasis placed on this topic by the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden. At a review of NASA programs presented to the senior managers of the agency in October 2009, Bolden described his personal interest in the protection of the planet from asteroid and comet impacts. He devoted more time to this topic than to some other NASA activates with much higher budgets and press visibility, such as Mars exploration.

The full NRC report is available free as a pdf at []. Following is just the Charge and Summary of the report. If any of you can't download this full report yourselves, I will be glad to send you a copy (4.3 MB)

David Morrison


Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies: Final Report

Committee to Review Near-Earth Object Surveys and
Hazard Mitigation Strategies of the Space Studies Board;
National Research Council

ISBN: 0-309-14969-X, 136 pages, 8 1/2 x 11, (2010)

This free PDF was downloaded from:



Review Committee

IRWIN I. SHAPIRO, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Chair
FAITH VILAS, MMT Observatory at Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, Vice Chair
MICHAEL A'HEARN, University of Maryland, College Park, Vice Chair
ANDREW F. CHENG, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
FRANK CULBERTSON, JR., Orbital Sciences Corporation
DAVID C. JEWITT, University of California, Los Angeles
STEPHEN MACKWELL, Lunar and Planetary Institute
H. JAY MELOSH, Purdue University
JOSEPH H. ROTHENBERG, Universal Space Network



The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008,1 required NASA to ask the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct a study of near-Earth object (NEO) surveys and hazard mitigation strategies.

Task 1: NEO Surveys

What is the optimal approach to completing the NEO census called for in the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey section of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act[2] to detect, track,[3] catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of at least 90 percent of potentially hazardous NEOs larger than 140 meters in diameter by the end of year 2020? Specific issues to be considered include, but are not limited to, the following:

o What observational, data-reduction, and data-analysis resources are necessary to achieve the Congressional mandate of detecting, tracking, and cataloguing the NEO population of interest?

o What physical characteristics of individual objects above and beyond the determination of accurate orbits should be obtained during the survey to support mitigation efforts?

o What role could be played by the National Science Foundation's Arecibo Observatory in characterizing these objects?

o What are possible roles of other ground- and space-based facilities in addressing survey goals, e.g., potential contributions of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan STARRS)?

1 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 (H.R. 2764; P.L. 110-161), Division B-Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2008. December 26, 2007.

2 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-155), S. 1281, January 4, 2005, Section 321, George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act.

3 The committee notes that the statement of task includes the term "detect," which includes spotting asteroids that have previously been discovered. The committee therefore uses the more appropriate term "discover" to refer to the locating of previously unknown objects.

Task 2: NEO Hazard Mitigation

What is the optimal approach to developing a deflection[4] capability, including options with a significant international component? Issues to be considered include, but are not limited to, the following:

o What mitigation strategy should be followed if a potentially hazardous NEO is identified?

o What are the relative merits and costs of various deflection scenarios that have been proposed? NASA and NSF requested an initial report for the first task no later than September 30, 2009. The committee delivered its interim report, containing only findings, but no recommendations, in early August.

Congress has charged the committee to recommend ways to discover and (partially) characterize 90 percent of NEOs exceeding 140 meters in diameter by the year 2020 (smaller objects are not discarded, once found). However, during its first meeting, the committee was explicitly asked by congressional staff to consider whether or not the congressionally established discovery goals should be modified.

4 The committee interprets "deflection" to mean "orbit change."



The United States spends about four million dollars annually searching for near-Earth objects (NEOs). The goal is to detect those that may collide with Earth. This funding helps to operate several observatories that scan the sky searching for NEOs, but is insufficient to detect the majority of NEOs that may present a tangible threat to humanity. A smaller amount of funding (significantly less than $1 million per year) supports study of ways to protect Earth from such a potential collision ("mitigation").

Congress established two mandates for NASA's search for NEOs. The first, in 1998 and now referred to as the Spaceguard Survey, called for the agency to discover 90 percent of NEOs with a diameter of 1 kilometer or greater within 10 years. An object of this limiting size is considered by many experts to be the minimum that could produce global devastation if it struck Earth. NASA is close to achieving this goal, and should achieve it within a few years. However, as the recent (2009) discovery of an approximately 2- to 3-kilometer-diameter NEO demonstrates, there are still large objects to be detected.

The second mandate, established in 2005, known as the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, called for NASA to detect 90 percent of NEOs with diameters of 140 meters or greater by 2020. As the committee noted in its August 2009 interim report:

Finding: Congress has mandated that NASA discover 90 percent of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020. The administration has not requested and Congress has not appropriated new funds to meet this objective. Only limited facilities are currently involved in this survey/discovery effort, funded by NASA's existing budget.

Finding: The current near-Earth object surveys cannot meet the goals of the 2005 George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act directing NASA to discover 90 percent of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020.

The Survey and Detection of NEOs

The charge from Congress to the committee was stated as two tasks. The first asked for the optimal approach to completing the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey. The second asked for the optimal approach to developing a capability to avert a NEO-Earth collision, and for options that included a significant international component.

The committee concluded that there was no way to define "optimal" in a universally acceptable manner: there are too many variables involved that can be both chosen and weighted in too many plausible ways. Recognizing this fact, the committee first took a broad look at all aspects of the hazards to Earth posed by NEOs and then decided on responses to the charge.

Regarding the first task of the charge, the committee concluded that it was infeasible to complete the NEO census mandated in 2005 on the required time scale (2020), in part because for the past 5 years the administration requested no funds, and the Congress appropriated none, for this purpose. The committee concluded that there are two primary options for completing the survey:

Finding: The selected approach to completing the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey will depend on nonscientific factors:

If completion of the survey as close to the original 2020 deadline as possible is considered most important, a space mission conducted in concert with observations using a suitable ground-based telescope and selected by peer-reviewed competition is the best approach. This combination could complete the survey well before 2030, perhaps as early as 2022 if funding were appropriated quickly.

If cost conservation is deemed most important, the use of a large ground-based telescope is the best approach. Under this option, the survey could not be completed by the original 2020 deadline, but could be completed before 2030. To achieve the intended cost-effectiveness, the funding to construct the telescope must come largely on the basis of non-NEO programs.

Multiple factors will drive the decision on how to approach completion of this survey. These include, but are not limited to, the perceived urgency for completing the survey as close to the original 2020 deadline as possible, the availability of funds to complete the survey, and the acceptability of the risk associated with the construction and operation of various ground- and space-based options.

Of the ground-based options mentioned in the statement of task and the additional ones submitted to the committee in its public request for suggestions, the most capable appears to be the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The LSST is to be constructed in Chile and has several science missions, as well as the capability of observing NEOs. Although the primary mirror for the LSST has been cast and is being polished, the telescope has not been fully funded and is pending prioritization in the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey currently underway.

Unless unexpected technical problems interfere, a space-based option should provide the fastest means to complete the survey. However, unlike ground-based telescopes, space options carry a modest launch risk and a more limited lifetime: ground-based telescopes have far longer useful lifetimes and could be employed for continued NEO surveys and for new science projects. (Ground-based telescopes generally have an annual operating cost that is approximately 10 percent of their design and construction costs.)

The committee notes that objects smaller than 140 meters in diameter are also capable of causing significant damage to Earth. The most well-known case from recent history is the 1908 impact of an object at Tunguska in the Siberian wilderness that devastated more than 2,000 square kilometers of forest. Previous estimates of the size of this object were on the order of approximately 70 meters in diameter.
Recent research indicates that the object could have been substantially smaller (30 to 50 meters in diameter), with much of the damage it caused due to shock waves from the explosion of the object in Earth's atmosphere. The committee strongly stresses that this new conclusion is preliminary and must be independently validated. Since smaller objects are more numerous than larger ones, however, this new result, if correct, implies an increase in the frequency of such events to approximately once per 3 centuries.

All told the committee was struck by the many uncertainties that suffuse the NEO subject. One other related example: do airbursts from impactors in this size range over an ocean cause tsunamis that can severely damage a coastline? This uncertainty and others have led the committee to a recommendation:

Recommendation: Because recent studies of meteor airbursts have suggested that near-Earth objects as small as 30 to 50 meters in diameter could be highly destructive, surveys should attempt to detect as many 30- to 50-meter objects as possible. This search for smaller-diameter objects should not be allowed to interfere with the survey for objects 140-meters in diameter or greater.

In all cases, the data-reduction and data-analysis needs mentioned in the charge would be covered by the projects themselves and by continuation of the current funding of the Minor Planet Center, as discussed in the report.

Characterization and the Arecibo and Goldstone Observatories

Obtaining the orbits and the physical properties of NEOs is known as characterization and is primarily needed to inform planning for any active defense of Earth. Such defense would be carried out through a suitable attack on any cosmic object predicted with near certainty to otherwise collide with Earth and cause significant damage. The apparently huge variation in the physical properties of NEOs seems to render infeasible development of a comprehensive inventory via in situ investigations by suitably instrumented spacecraft: the costs would be truly astronomical. A spacecraft reconnaissance mission might make good sense to conduct on an object that, without our intervention, would hit Earth with near certainty. Such a mission would be feasible provided that there were sufficient warning time for the results to suitably inform the development of an attack mission to cause the object to miss colliding with Earth.

On the other hand, the committee concluded that vigorous, ground-based characterization at modest cost is important for the NEO task. Modest funding could support optical observations of already-known and newly discovered asteroids and comets to obtain some types of information on this broad range of objects, such as their reflectivity as a function of color, to help infer their surface properties and mineralogy, and their rotation properties. In addition, the complementary radar systems at Arecibo and Goldstone are powerful facilities for characterization within their reach in the solar system, a maximum of about one-tenth of the Earth-Sun distance. Arecibo, which has a maximum sensitivity about 20-fold higher than Goldstone's, but does not have nearly so good sky coverage as Goldstone, can for example, model the three-dimensional shapes of (generally very odd-shaped) asteroids, and estimate their surface characteristics, as well as determine whether the asteroid has a (smaller) satellite or satellites around it, all important to know for planning active defense. Radar can also accurately determine orbits of NEOs, from a few relatively closely spaced (in time) observations, which has the advantage of being able to quickly calm public fears (or possibly, in some cases, show that they are warranted).

Finding: The Arecibo and Goldstone radar systems play a unique role in the characterization of NEOs, providing unmatched accuracy in orbit determination, and insight into size, shape, surface structure, and other properties for objects within their latitude coverage and detection range.

Recommendation: Immediate action is required to ensure the continued operation of the Arecibo Observatory at a level sufficient to maintain and staff the radar facility. Additionally, NASA and NSF should support a vigorous program of radar observations of NEOs at Arecibo and NASA should support such a program at Goldstone for orbit determination and characterization of physical properties.

For both Arecibo and Goldstone continued funding is far from assured, not only for the radar systems, but for the entire facilities. The incremental annual funding required to maintain and operate the radar systems even at their present relatively low levels of operation, is about $1 million at each facility (see Chapter 4). The annual funding for Arecibo is approximately $12 million. Goldstone is part of the
Deep Space Network and its overall funding includes additional equipment for space communications.


Mitigation refers to all means of defending Earth and its inhabitants from effects of an impending impact by a NEO. Four main types of defense are discussed in this report. The choice of which one(s) to use depends primarily on the warning time available and on the mass and speed of the impactor. The types of mitigation are:

1. Civil defense. This option may be the only one feasible for warning times shorter than perhaps a year or two. Depending on the state of readiness to apply an active defense, civil defense may be the only choice for even longer times.

2. "Slow push" or "slow pull" methods. For these options the orbit of the target object would be changed so that it avoided collision with Earth. The most effective way to change the orbit, given a constraint on the energy that would be available, is to change the velocity of the object, either in or opposite to the direction in which it is moving (direct deflection-moving the object "sideways"-is much less efficient). These options take considerable time to be effective, of the order of decades, and even then would be useful only for objects whose diameters are no larger than 100 meters or so.

3. Kinetic impactors. In these scenarios the target's orbit would be changed by sending one or more spacecraft with very massive payload(s) to impact directly on the target at high speed in its direction, or opposite to its direction, of motion. The effectiveness of this option depends not only on the mass of the target, but on any net enhancement due to material being thrown out of the target, in the direction opposite to that of the payload upon impact.

4. Nuclear explosions. For non-technical reasons, this would likely be a last resort, but it is also the most powerful technique and could take several different forms, as discussed in the report. The nuclear option would be usable for objects up to a few kilometers in diameter. For larger NEOs (more than a few kilometers in diameter), which would be on the scale that would inflict serious global damage and, perhaps, mass extinctions, there is at present no feasible defense. Luckily such events are exceedingly rare, the last known being about 65 million years ago.

Of these options, only kinetic impact has been demonstrated (via the very successful Deep Impact spacecraft that collided with comet Tempel-1 in July 2006). The other options have not advanced past the conceptual stage. Even Deep Impact was on a scale far lower than would be required for Earth defense for an NEO on the order of 100 meters in diameter, and impacted on a relatively large-and therefore easier to hit-object.
Although the committee was charged with determining the "optimal approach to developing a deflection capability," it concluded that work in this area is relatively new and immature. The committee therefore concluded that the "optimal approach" starts with a research program.

Further Research

The committee was struck by the significant unknowns in many aspects of NEO hazards that could yield to Earth-based research and was led to:

Recommendation: The United States should initiate a peer-reviewed, targeted research program in the area of impact hazard and mitigation of NEOs. Because this is a policy driven, applied program, it should not be in competition with basic scientific research programs or funded from them. This research program should encompass three principal task areas: surveys, characterization, and mitigation. The scope should include analysis, simulation, and laboratory experiments. This research program does not include mitigation space experiments or tests which are treated elsewhere in this report.

National and International Cooperation

Responding effectively to hazards posed by NEOs requires the joint efforts of diverse institutions and individuals. Thus organization plays a key role. Because NEOs are a global threat, efforts to deal with them could involve international cooperation from the outset. (However, this is one area where one nation, acting alone, could address such a global threat.) The report discusses possible means to organize, both nationally and internationally, responses to those hazards. Arrangements at present are largely ad hoc and informal here and abroad, and involve both government and private entities.

The committee discussed ways to organize the national community to deal with the hazards of NEOs and also recommends an approach to international cooperation.

Recommendation: The United States should take the lead in organizing and empowering a suitable international entity to participate in developing a detailed plan for dealing with the NEO hazard.

One major concern with such an organization, especially in the disaster-preparation area, is the maintenance of attention and morale given the expected exceptionally long intervals between harmful events. Countering the tendency to complacency will be a continuing challenge. This problem would be mitigated if, for example, the civil defense aspects were combined in the National Response Framework with those for other natural hazards.

Recent NEO-Related Events

The U.S. Department of Defense, which operates sensors in Earth orbit capable of detecting the high-altitude explosion of small NEOs, has in the past shared this information with the NEO science community. The committee concluded that this data-sharing was important for understanding issues such as the population size of small NEOs and the hazard that smaller NEOs pose. This sharing is also
important to validate airburst simulations, characterize the physical properties of small NEOs (such as their strength), and to assist in the recovery of meteorites.

Recommendation: Data from NEO airburst events observed by the U.S. Department of Defense satellites should be made available to the scientific community to allow it to improve understanding of the NEO hazards to Earth.

In 2008, Congress passed a NASA appropriations act that called for the Office of Science and Technology Policy to determine by October 2010 which agency should be responsible for conducting the NEO survey and detection and mitigation program. Several agencies are possible candidates for such a role.

During its deliberations the committee learned of several efforts outside the United States to develop spacecraft to search for categories of NEOs. In particular, Canada's NEOSSat and Germany's AsteroidFinder are interesting and capable small scale missions that will detect a small percentage of specific types of NEOs, those primarily inside Earth's orbit. These spacecraft will not accomplish the goals of the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act. However, they highlight the fact that other countries are beginning to seriously consider the NEO issue. Such efforts also represent an opportunity for future international cooperation and coordination in the search for potentially hazardous NEOs. In addition, the committee was impressed with the European Space Agency's early development of the Don Quijote spacecraft mission that would consist of an observing spacecraft and a kinetic impactor. This mission, though not funded, would have value for testing a mitigation technique and could still be an opportunity for international cooperation in this area.

Finally, the committee points out a current estimate of the long-term average annual human fatality rate from impactors: slightly under 100. At first blush, one is inclined to dismiss this rate as trivial in the general scheme of things. However, one must also consider the extreme damage that could be inflicted by a single impact; this presents the classic problem of the conflict between extremely important and extremely rare. The committee considers work on this problem as insurance, with the premiums devoted wholly towards preventing the tragedy. The question then is: What is a reasonable expenditure on annual premiums? The committee offered a few possibilities for what could possibly be accomplished at three different levels of funding (see Chapter 8); it is, however, the political leadership of the country that determines the amount to be spent on scanning the skies for potential hazards and preparing our defenses.
David Morrison, NASA Ames Research Center N-17
Tel 650 604 5094

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