Shocking! NASA to Slow Hunt for Asteroids That Could Kill Millions in ‘Baffling’ US Move?


Thousands of asteroids as big as the Washington Monument zip around our solar system at 40,000 miles per hour, hunks of metal or rock that could strike with 10 times the force of the most powerful nuclear weapon and kill millions of people.

Thousands of asteroids as big as the Washington Monument zip around our solar system at 40,000 miles per hour, hunks of metal or rock that could strike with 10 times the force of the most powerful nuclear weapon and kill millions of people.

Congress wants NASA to find them. The Biden administration says it can wait.

The space agency estimates there are about 25,000 asteroids of at least 140 meters in diameter near Earth’s orbit. While the odds of them crashing into our planet at any given time are minuscule, Congress directed NASA to find 90% of them by 2020. Scientists have found fewer than half.

But for reasons it has not publicly explained, the administration has proposed delaying by two years, until 2028, the launch of an infrared space telescope meant to find those threatening asteroids and sharply cutting its budget for next year. One space policy advocate called the move “baffling.”

Lawmakers have pushed back, inserting measures into key bills and calling for a faster timeline for the telescope’s funding and launch. The fight could flare up as the federal government’s Sept. 30 shutdown deadline approaches.

It also comes as NASA focuses on higher-profile missions. Artemis 1, an uncrewed Moon-orbiting mission, is slated to launch Saturday, while a separate mission to collect rock and dust samples from Mars is looming.

On Sept. 26, NASA also plans to direct a spacecraft the size of a small car to slam into an asteroid at 14,760 mph in a bid to shift its trajectory. That asteroid isn’t a threat to Earth, but the mission is the first time NASA has practiced bumping one to change its course.

Asteroid-ramming techniques won’t matter if scientists can’t find the potential threats, advocates say.

“You can’t mitigate anything unless you know it’s there,” said Amy Mainzer, a University of Arizona professor and mission director for the Near Earth Object Surveyor, the telescope being put on hold. “And we know from experience that it takes time to build and launch spacecraft. So every year that we wait—that we don’t have a good understanding of what is out there—is a year that basically makes it less likely for us to go mitigate something if we did find something.”

About 500 times a year, researchers identify asteroids of at least 140 meters in diameter near Earth’s orbit. At that size—the width of one-and-a-half football fields—they pass a semi-apocalyptic Goldilocks test.

They’re not quite as big as the 10- to 15-kilometer asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, but there’s more of them and they’re harder to find. And they’re much more destructive than the asteroids of 20 meters or less that more frequently hit Earth.

A study published in 2019 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded a 140-meter asteroid could release the equivalent of 500 megatons of TNT upon impact. That’s more than 30,000 times as powerful as the atom bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.

Such asteroid strikes happen rarely: The same report put the average interval between them at 20,000 years.

Much more frequently, Earth gets the smaller variety space objects that leave their own trail of destruction. In 2013, a roughly 20-meter asteroid broke apart about 25 kilometers above the town of Chelyabinsk, Russia, shattering windows and injuring more than 1,600 people.

Russia also was the site of the most destructive asteroid in recorded human history. In 1908, a 50- to 80-meter asteroid struck near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River and flattened more than 800 square miles of uninhabited forest.

For now, NASA is still mostly reliant on ground-based observations to spot objects of 140 meters or more. Officials also repurposed a space telescope, called NEOWISE, that was originally meant to find planets—but it’s only discovered five large asteroids this year.

The Surveyor telescope is projected to have a wider field of vision, allowing scientists to get a broader landscape of nearby asteroids, Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, said in a phone interview. And its infrared sensors will spot dark asteroids invisible to the naked eye.

“They’re like these dark, charcoal, potato-like things that are tiny, and you know generally where they could be but don’t know where they are,” Dreier said. “And if they’re moving fast, it’s hard to find them at the right time.”

‘Baffling’ Cuts

NASA spokesman Joshua Handal told Bloomberg Government the agency “will launch NEO Surveyor as early as possible,” but did not answer questions about why the administration proposed the delay.

In its annual budget justification, NASA cited its need to “support other high priority missions,” pointing to “cost growth” for its missions collecting surface samples on Mars and surveying one of Jupiter’s moons.

Mainzer said she hasn’t gotten an explanation from the administration for the proposed cuts and delay.

In conversations with congressional staff, NASA has cited the narrow launch windows for the Mars mission as one reason for changing the Surveyor’s budget and timetable, a House Republican aide said. If officials miss their deadline to launch the Mars spacecraft, they’ll have to wait another 26 months. The Surveyor doesn’t face similar constraints.

Dreier described the budget request to Congress — $39.9 million, rather than the $170 million that constitutes full funding — as “baffling.” There’s no apparent reason NASA couldn’t have simply asked for more money, rather than pitting missions against each other, he said.

By comparison, Congress allocated more than $170 million in 2022 for the National Gallery of Art, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the maintenance of House office buildings.

“It’s really a tiny drop in the bucket,” Leroy Chiao, a retired NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, said in a Bloomberg Radio interview. “Any time you’re cutting programs, and satellite programs—whether it’s satellite programs or human spaceflight programs—it’s kind of a shame.”

There’s been a limited lobbying effort. The University of Arizona’s in-house lobbyist reported working on the issue earlier this year. CapGov, LLC, reported lobbying on behalf of Space Dynamics Laboratory. The Planetary Society and the National Space Society also sent a letter to appropriators asking them to reject proposed cuts to the program’s funding.

Philip Christensen, co-chair of a steering group that produced the decadal planetary science report for the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, told lawmakers that the NEO Surveyor had been a significant focus for the panel.

“We spent a lot of time discussing it and the consensus was very much that this is an important mission,” Christensen said at a congressional hearing in May. “It’s crucial to the people here on the Earth; we need to understand and identify these objects.”

Congress Pushes Back

At the same May hearing, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) questioned the proposed delay, saying the NEO Surveyor “will advance science, maintain global leadership, and protect our precious planet.”

The House and Senate Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bills both include more money than the administration requested, but less than $170 million. They also both include language urging NASA to launch the telescope before 2028.

The recently enacted CHIPS bill on semiconductor research included language directing the NASA administrator to continue the mission “on a schedule to achieve a launch-readiness date not later than March 30, 2026, or the earliest practicable date.” But that measure includes only authorizing language rather than actual funding.

Arizona lawmakers had a hand in supporting the language. In a statement, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) praised the program’s work “protecting our planet from dangerous asteroids and comets, boosting Arizona’s space innovation, and helping create good paying jobs.”

Despite the efforts on the Hill, the mission may have to start preparing for a two-year delay as soon as October.

Lawmakers have acknowledged they’ll rely on a stopgap funding measure to avoid a government shutdown after the Sept. 30 deadline, instead aiming for a full spending deal in November or December.

NASA and the White House Office of Management and Budget declined to say what kind of directions the NEO Surveyor mission would receive under a continuing resolution.

But if the government is funded under a continuing resolution, NASA may choose to start winding down work. Mainzer knows the project would “lose big chunks of our subcontractors” and slow to a trickle. Job cuts are possible, including at the University of Arizona, she said.

For her, the last few months have been proof that life imitates art. The professor served as a science consultant on the Netflix blockbuster “Don’t Look Up,” in which astronomers struggle to alert a distracted public to a massive comet headed toward Earth.

The most likely outcome for the Surveyor project, she said, is that her researchers do their work and don’t identify a giant asteroid that could someday hit the planet. But they won’t know until they try.

“Hopefully, there isn’t something,” Mainzer said. “And then we’ll do some nice solar system science and go on our merry way and worry about other things. Hopefully that’s the case. But hope is not a management strategy. It’s better to just go do the experiment and see what’s there.”


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *