A recent report has encouraged the attempts of astronomers looking for a dedicated expedition to hunt for near-Earth cosmic bodies, even though NASA has still to decide to fund that program.
The report by a National Academics committee decided that an infrared telescope based in space is the best method to achieve the target passed down by the Congress over ten years ago of finding all potentially hazardous objects near Earth (NEOs), at least 140 meters in width.
Lack of funding made the job undoable
Both planetary scientists and NASA realized that meeting the initial deadline was not achievable because of lack of resources. Even though Congress has made NASA responsible for NEO detection and danger characterization, it has not provided the proper funding to allow NASA to continue the task appropriately, the report stated.
Some at NASA have followed a concept called NEOCam, a space-based telescope designed to infrared searchers of NEOs. The report successfully endorsed that expedition concept, determining that alternatives such as ground-based telescopes of arrays of smallsats are not adequately equipped to compete with an infrared space telescope.
The report continued saying that planetary defense missions such as the NEOCam should not have to race against other planetary science programs in the Discovery project, mostly because the planetary defense was not mentioned in the most recent decadal report of the field. This resulted in a bias against the few planetary defense-focused missions in the project.
A roadmap for the next decade
The Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), an advisory group that handles planetary science and planetary defense activities as well, brought forward the issue at its latest meeting on June 24th in college PArk, Maryland. The group showed its support for NEOCam and stated its concern that the complete NEOCam mission lacks the proper funding to enter Phase B with the take-off still many years further.
Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, said at the June SBAG meeting that his team intends to create a ‘roadmap’ for the agency’s planetary defense activities, including the period from 2023 to 2032. That would contain planning for future missions that would feature NEOCam and other new concepts to send an expedition to the asteroid Apophis in 2029. That roadmap work will start this year and will be finished by the end of 2020.