There is no doubt big-time troublemakers lurk out there in the cosmos. We know that blitzkrieging asteroids and comets can make for a bad day here on Earth because our planet has been on the receiving end of many long-ago scurrilous intruders, and has the pockmarks to prove it. There was also the recent and loud wake-up call when an incoming space rock detonated in the skies near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in early 2013, causing significant injuries and property damage. The bottom line is that near-Earth objects (NEOs) have crosshairs on our world. But what to do about these cosmic demons from the deep is another matter.

In the waning days of Pres. Barack Obama’s administration, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy” last week. The strategy outlines major goals the country will have to tackle to prepare to meet the NEO threat, signaling that some leaders are taking the danger more seriously. Whether the U.S. government is willing to put significant funding behind such efforts, however, still remains to be seen. “This has been something that for years was more or less a laughing matter,” says William Ailor, an Aerospace Fellow of The Aerospace Corp. The White House report shows that there is high-level interest in the NEO threat, and that even if incoming NEOs are not among the most likely threats we face, the consequences of an impact could be dire. “It’s a good thing to keep your eye on,” Ailor says, and the new report “brings reality home.”

Skyfall Strategy

The 19-page report, the product of an interagency faction of experts convened in January 2016 dubbed the Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN) working group, was released January 3. Overall, the group found the U.S. needs more tools to track space rocks, and that greater international cooperation is necessary. Specifically, the report outlines several goals, including increasing the ability both in the U.S. and in other countries to more rapidly detect NEOs, track their movements and characterize the objects more completely. It also says more research is needed to study how best to deflect and disrupt a space rock that might be on a collision course with Earth. Furthermore, the strategy calls for better and more integrated modeling of NEO trajectories to reduce uncertainties of their orbits and possible impact effects.

If indeed there is a NEO strike, the strategy also seeks to develop coherent national and international emergency procedures for different impact scenarios, be it an object hitting deep ocean, a coastal region or a major landmass. We must be prepared to respond as well as recover from such a blow in an orderly and timely manner, the report finds.

Lastly, the document’s strategic goals underscore the need to get all nations to agree that the potential NEO Earth impact risk is a global challenge, one that demands planetary coordination and cooperation. Protocols and thresholds for taking action, not only in the U.S. but internationally, are necessary.

New Step Forward

The working group represents an important advance in dealing with the NEO threat, says Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer within the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate who co-chaired the DAMIEN project. The effort was “really the first time we’ve sat down with an ‘all of government’ approach” that brought multiple federal agencies together, he says, “to do what needs to be done to be prepared to appropriately respond to discovery of a possible asteroid impact.” Johnson says that having an approved strategy “is a major first step,” but details of how to pursue these goals will be forthcoming via a yet-to-be-determined action plan. “Then the relevant departments and agencies will need to take the steps needed to accomplish that action plan,” he says.

Scoping out the action plan is the next order of business for DAMIEN as soon as President-elect Donald Trump’s new OSTP gets its feet on the ground, Johnson notes. “We have drafted a few things, but it is still to be written. That will take about another year, assuming we continue on this path.”

On the one hand, NEO experts are heartened by the OSTP document. But as always, paper strategies need to backed at some point by bucks. Ray Williamson, a faculty member of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, salutes the White House OSTP report. As a former astronomer and a past member of the United Nations’ Action Team 14 that focused for years on the NEO danger, he finds the document says “all the right things and calls for the right approaches” to mitigating the peril of an incoming asteroid. But, as is the case with most high-impact, low-probability events, “motivating the several federal agencies to follow through on the good advice in this report will be a major task,” he adds. Making that job more daunting is that the White House strategy involves close cooperation with foreign entities. “Federal agencies, both here and abroad, generally feel that they have barely enough funding available to accomplish their primary mission and may well be reluctant to devote resources to such an effort,” Williamson says. “Making this strategy work will require significant attention to supplying the necessary funding for implementation.”
Case in point: earlier this month, NASA approved two new spacecraft missions to move forward out of a list of five candidates. A journey to Jupiter’s retinue of Trojan asteroids and a probe to study a giant metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche won out over a proposed Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam). This space-based telescope would spot and survey uncatalogued Earth-threatening asteroids and comets. Although NEOCam was not selected, NASA did award further funding to continue studying the NEOCam concept for another year. But whether that mission will ever fly is anyone’s guess. “I don’t yet know what we will do now for NEOCam—but we are working it,” NASA’s Johnson says.

International Work Ahead

The push for international cooperation on the NEO threat is key, says Detlef Koschny, head of the NEO segment in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Situational Awareness program. “Within ESA we are working on very similar steps to be prepared,” Koschny says. “In particular, we will fully continue to support the international collaboration, which is already very well underway.”

The 2017 International Academy of Astronautics meeting on planetary defense, to meet this May in Tokyo, will hold a “tabletop exercise” involving a make-believe asteroid strike on Earth. The rehearsal will help appraise leadership reactions, information requirements, threat corridors, emergency management responses—including evacuation route planning—in response to the hypothetical situation. Aerospace Corp.’s Ailor will chair that meeting and has coordinated similar exercises over the past few years with participants from NASA, the U.S. departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security (including its Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA), along with the White House and others. The last such simulation was held October 25, 2016, in El Segundo, Calif. “A lot of work needs to be done at the international level,” he says, “to have people worldwide understand that this is really an international issue.”