Counting and Countering NEOs

Report examines options for detecting and countering near-Earth objects

A study in 2007 revealed the origin of the asteroid (dubbed 298 Baptistina) that created the impact linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is now thought that the parent object of asteroid (298) Baptistina was hit by another large asteroid, creating numerous large fragments that would later create the Chicxulub crater on the Yucatan Peninsula as well as the prominent Tycho crater found on the Moon.
Credit: Southwest Research Institute

A new report from the National Research Council lays out options NASA could follow to detect more near-Earth objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets that could pose a hazard if they cross Earth’s orbit. The report says the $4 million the U.S. spends annually to search for NEOs is insufficient to meet a congressionally mandated requirement to detect NEOs that could threaten Earth.

Congress mandated in 2005 that NASA discover 90 percent of NEOs whose diameter is 140 meters or greater by 2020, and asked the National Research Council in 2008 to form a committee to determine the optimum approach to doing so. In an interim report released last year, the committee concluded that it was impossible for NASA to meet that goal, since Congress has not appropriated new funds for the survey nor has the administration asked for them.

In its final report, the committee lays out two approaches that would allow NASA to complete its goal soon after the 2020 deadline; the approach chosen would depend on the priority policymakers attach to spotting NEOs. If finishing NASA’s survey as close as possible to the original 2020 deadline is considered most important, a mission using a space-based telescope conducted in concert with observations from a suitable ground-based telescope is the best approach, the report says. If conserving costs is deemed most important, the use of a ground-based telescope only is preferable.

The report also recommends that NASA monitor for smaller objects – those down to 30 to 50 meters in diameter — which recent research suggests can be highly destructive. However, the report stresses that searching for smaller objects should not interfere with first fulfilling the mandate from Congress. Beyond completion of that mandate, the report notes the need for constant vigilance in monitoring the skies, so as to detect all dangerous NEOs. In addition, the nation should undertake a peer-reviewed research program to better investigate the many unknown aspects connected with detecting NEOs and countering those that could be a threat. The U.S. should also take the lead in organizing an international entity to develop a detailed plan for dealing with hazards from these objects. 

In addition, the report recommends that immediate action be taken to ensure the continued operation of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. NASA and NSF should support a vigorous program of NEO observations at Arecibo, and NASA should also support such a program at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex. Although these facilities cannot discover NEOs, they play an important role in accurately determining the orbits and characterizing the properties of NEOs within radar range.

The Scope of the Hazard

A long-period comet called 2001 RX14 (Linear) turned up in images captured in 2002 by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in New Mexico.
Credit: Mike Solontoi/UW

Near-Earth objects are asteroids and comets that orbit the sun and approach or cross Earth’s orbit. An asteroid or comet about 10 kilometers in diameter struck the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago and caused global devastation, probably wiping out large numbers of plant and animal species including the dinosaurs. Objects as large as this one strike Earth only about once every 100 million years on average, the report notes. NASA has been highly successful at detecting and tracking objects 1 kilometer in diameter or larger, and continues to search for these large objects. Objects down to sizes of about 140 meters in diameter — which NASA has been mandated to survey for – would cause regional damage; such impacts happen on average every 30,000 years, the report says.

While impacts by large NEOs are rare, a single impact could inflict extreme damage, raising the classic problem of how to confront a possibility that is both very rare and very important. Far more likely are those impacts that cause only moderate damage and few fatalities. Conducting surveys for NEOs and detailed studies of ways to mitigate collisions is best viewed as a form of insurance, the report says. How much to spend on these insurance premiums is a decision that must be made by the nation’s policymakers.

Mitigating Damage

The report also examines what is known about methods to defend against NEOs. These methods are new and still immature. No single approach is effective for the full range of near-Earth objects, the committee concluded. But with sufficient warning, a suite of four types of mitigation is adequate to meet the threat from all NEOs, except the most energetic ones.

  • Civil defense (evacuation, sheltering in place, providing emergency infrastructure) is a cost-effective mitigation measure for saving lives from the smallest NEO impact events and is a necessary part of mitigation for larger events.
  • "Slow push" or "slow pull" methods use a spacecraft to exert force on the target object to gradually change its orbit to avoid collision with the Earth. This technique is practical only for small NEOs (tens of meters to roughly 100 meters in diameter) or possibly for medium-sized objects (hundreds of meters), but would likely require decades of warning. Of the slow push/pull techniques, the gravity tractor appears to be by far the closest to technological readiness.
  • Kinetic methods, which fly a spacecraft into the NEO to change its orbit, could defend against moderately sized objects (many hundreds of meters to 1 kilometer in diameter), but also may require decades of warning time.
  • Nuclear explosions are the only current, practical means for dealing with large NEOs (diameters greater than 1 kilometer) or as a backup for smaller ones if other methods were to fail.

Although all of these methods are conceptually valid, none is now ready to implement on short notice, the report says. Civil defense and kinetic impactors are probably the closest to readiness, but even these require additional study prior to reliance on them.

Given the significant unknowns about many aspects of the threat and its mitigation, the report recommends that the U.S. start a peer-reviewed, targeted research program on the hazards posed by NEOs, and how to deal with them. Because this is a policy-driven, applied research program, it should not be in competition with basic scientific research programs or be funded from them, the report adds.