NASA's Search for Asteroids to Help Protect Earth

NASA places a high priority on finding Near- Earth Objects (NEOs) and protecting our home planet from them. In fact, the agency is working with our partners in the U.S. and around the world to detect, track and characterize NEOs, especially those that might pose a threat to human populations.

NASA has been studying NEOs since the 1970s.  They are asteroids and comets that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood. Composed mostly of water ice with embedded dust particles, comets originally formed in the cold outer planetary system while most of the rocky asteroids formed in the warmer inner solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Established in 1998, NASA's NEO Observations Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, is responsible for the Agency’s efforts at finding, tracking, and characterizing NEOs. The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena Calif., conducts the daily operations of the program.

In 2010, NASA fulfilled a congressional mandate to discover at least 90 percent of 1-kilometer-sized NEOs, and is now working hard to find smaller NEOs.  Current national space policy directs NASA to pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize NEOs. To do so, NASA’s NEO budget has increased substantially from $4 million to $40 million.

A NEO Impact Working Group, which includes NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is being formed to review disaster response plans for NEO impact scenarios. NASA and FEMA conducted a joint NEO-impact tabletop exercise in 2013.

NASA’s NEO Observation Program is also a key member of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), organized last year at the recommendation of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS).  In response to UN COPUOS recommendations, space agencies are also establishing a Space Missions Planning Advisory Group to consider options for planetary defense against potential NEO impacts with Earth.

NASA and its partners are not only working on the ground but in space to seek out and study NEOs.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft has made the most accurate survey to date of the size distribution of NEOs. In 2016, NASA will launch its Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to collect a sample from a 1,760-foot (500-meter)-diameter asteroid named Bennu. OSIRIS-REx will return the sample to Earth for detailed study.

In 2013 NASA announced its Asteroid Initiative, which includes a bold mission to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid through the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and the Asteroid Grand Challenge to find all asteroids threats to human population and know what to do about them. The NEO program is a critical part of the Asteroid Initiative.

The expanding NEO Observations Program, the OSIRIS REx mission and the commitment to seeking new and innovative solutions to this global issue will also help to inform NASA's science, technology and human exploration efforts to achieve President Obama's goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and then on to Mars in the 2030’s.

Source: NASA
Date: Apr 23, 2014