NASA to develop space-based asteroid-tracking telescope to protect Earth

NASA says that it will push through developing an independent asteroid-detecting satellite that would be able to find any potential Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that may cause harm to Earth but will need to find funding for it first.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C., said September 23 at a meeting of an agency advisory panel. They will call it the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveillance Mission. Such a scope is essential for meeting a congressional requirement that NASA detect 90% of all potentially hazardous asteroids and comets of at least 140 meters in diameter.

“The only reason we want every 140-meter object is not because we need it to do all the science,” he said. “It’s because we want to understand whether one of them is on a collision course over time to Earth.”

Additionally, the mission will be l a combination of an infrared telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a ground-based facility being built in Chile, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., said this summer in a report.

Scientists note that an infrared-able telescope is essential because it is most capable of detecting hard-to-see asteroids. The past decade has shown that dark asteroids, which are nearly invisible in visible light but stand out in infrared, are more abundant than once thought. “There are a lot of really dark asteroids out there,” says Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and an author of the report. “That pushes the need for the infrared system.”

The infrared telescope, as described in the meeting, would fly a 50-centimeter telescope with a camera that operates in the infrared between 4 and 10 microns. The spacecraft would have a total mass of no more than 1,300 kilograms, allowing it to launch on a vehicle like an Atlas 5 or Falcon 9 to the Earth-sun L-1 Lagrange point.

Once in space, Zurbuchen said the mission should reach the 90% congressional goal within ten years, with an anticipated mission lifetime of 12 years.

Meanwhile, the total cost of the NEO Surveillance Mission would be $500–600 million, with a launch no earlier than the fiscal year 2025. NASA will be outsourcing the funding from the space agency’s planetary defense program fund.

The new NEO Surveillance Mission will be similar to the NEOCam mission (above) previously proposed to NASA’s Discovery program but instead, run as a directed mission as part of the agency’s planetary defense efforts.
Source: NASA/JPL

The mission has based a concept on the NEOCam mission that was a finalist in the previous competition for Discovery-class planetary science missions that was first proposed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, nearly 15 years ago.

The difference from the previous NEOCam proposal, however, is that the NEO Surveillance Mission will be “directed” by NASA itself, but the JPL team will remain to be the lead developer instead of tagging along with the previous Discovery competition.

However, the mission will be facing budget concerns as the funding would come from the agency’s planetary defense program, currently funded at $150 million a year. The same program is already developing a NEO-intercepting mission, which it is presently doing with the European Space Agency, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission that will launch in 2021.

As of the moment, it’s unclear whether congressional appropriators will follow NASA’s lead and also fund the new infrared telescope, but the space agency did provide an extended Phase A funding to support work on the infrared detectors the mission would use to search for asteroids.

“NEOCam was a [principal investigator]-class mission that was not selected, put into an extended Phase A, and then stopped,” he said. “The thing we invested time in is the instrument, that is going forward as part of a mission that has a lot of similarities to what NEOCam was conceived.”

Meanwhile, the core NEOCam science team will also likely be involved in the new mission, said Lindley Johnson, head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. However, he said there might be calls for additional participating scientists for the mission.

The decision by NASA to pursue the telescope comes after a near asteroid-Earth collision, which the space agency and ground-based telescopes failed to identify until the last minute. It was a slow-moving, football field-size asteroid, named 2019 OK, that passed just 65,000 kilometers from Earth.

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