In June of last year, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spoke to the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and shared with the international community what NASA is doing to detect and track asteroids. He also engaged the United Nation’s support for NASA’s mission to find, capture and redirect an asteroid to lunar orbit, and then send humans to explore it by 2025.
Following Bolden’s presentation, Mazlan Othman, director of the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, offered support for NASA’s asteroid initiative and noted that near-Earth objects (NEO) have long been a concern for COPUOS.
This week at the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) in Vienna, Austria, two NASA experts provided an update about additional efforts NASA is taking to support the global effort to find, characterize, and monitor near-Earth asteroids.
Jason Kessler, program executive for the Asteroid Grand Challenge, gave a presentation on the grand challenge to the subcommittee. Kessler spoke about the critical need for international cooperation in order to meet the grand challenge, which is to find all asteroid threats to human population and know what to do about them.
At their 2013 meeting, COPUOS endorsed expanded efforts for an International Asteroid Warning Network. IAWN is a global network of telescopes and tracking stations from different parts of the world searching all parts of the sky to provide a more comprehensive picture of how many asteroids exist and where they are. The IAWN provides a way for additional nations to join the effort.
Lindley Johnson, the program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) program, spoke to the subcommittee about the progress accomplished in the last year on the IAWN and the hazardous NEO Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG), which COPUOS also endorsed in 2013. The SMPAG is a new forum for space capable nations to discuss ways to deflect an asteroid that might impact the Earth. NASA supported the first IAWN Steering Committee meeting in January, as well as the first SMPAG meeting held in early February. The IAWN and the SMPAG are independent of the United Nations, but keep the STSC updated on their activities.
NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing close to Earth using both ground and space-based telescopes. The NEOO program, commonly called “Spaceguard,” discovers these objects, characterizes a subset that are of interest and plots their orbits into the future to determine whether any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.
As of Feb. 1, 10,685 NEOs have been discovered, including about 97 percent of asteroids larger than .6 miles (one kilometer). But there is a greater need to pinpoint smaller asteroids such as the one that impacted near Chelyabinsk, Russia.
NASA is mainly focused on finding asteroids larger than 459 feet (140 meters), and creating new ways to find even smaller NEOs. NASA also is committed to developing new ways to search existing data to find these objects. In September 2013, NASA announced a partnership with Planetary Resources to develop crowd-sourced software solutions to enhance detection of NEOs in data already collected by NASA and agency partners.
NASA doubled the money spent in the search for potentially hazardous asteroids through the NEOO program in Fiscal Year 2014, and is committed to developing new ways to use existing data by seeking for innovative ideas from citizen scientists.
Data from the search for NEOs also is being used to support the Asteroid Redirect Mission. The mission concept is to use a robotic spacecraft to capture a small near-Earth asteroid — 13-32 feet (4-10 meters) in size — or remove a boulder 3-16 feet (1-5 meters) from the surface of a larger asteroid and redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon. Astronauts launched aboard NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket would rendezvous with the captured asteroid material in lunar orbit and collect samples for return to Earth.
One of the first steps for the asteroid redirect mission is to find a target asteroid appropriate for capture and redirection — a step that meshes with the grand challenge effort to find all asteroid threats to human populations.
These two efforts are part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, which will leverage and integrate NASA’s activities in human exploration, space technology, and space science. The goal is to advance the technologies and capabilities needed for future human and robotic exploration, enable the first human mission to interact with asteroid material, and accelerate efforts to detect, track, characterize, and mitigate the threat of potentially hazardous asteroids.