Deep Impact: NASA OIG Report Demolishes Asteroid Detection Program


Rarely, if ever, has a NASA OIG report been this direct:

“We found that NASA has organized its NEO Program under a single Program Executive who manages a loosely structured conglomerate of research activities that are not well integrated and lack an overarching framework with Program oversight, objectives, and established milestones to track progress.”

“NASA has placed overall Program responsibility in a single Program Executive at Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight. In FY 2013, the Program Executive oversaw a budget of $20.5 million and 64 funding instruments, including grants, purchase orders, and contract task orders to observatories and other facilities. More than half of these instruments exceeded $100,000, and nine involved more than $1 million in annual funding. With the Program budget growing to $40 million in FY 2014, the number of funding instruments will likely also increase, and with it the Program Executive’s oversight responsibilities”

“Because it lacks a program plan with associated cost estimates, NASA could not identify resources required to adequately support the Program, explain how some of the efforts to which the NEO Program contributes further Program goals, or predict when statutory goals would be met.”

These are just a small sample of the criticisms leveled at NASA’s asteroid detection efforts in a brutal report released from the NASA’s Office of Inspector General yesterday. The complete report (pdf) is here.

Among the key findings, whereas the agency was tasked with identifying by 2020 90% of all asteroids greater than 140 meters in diameter or larger that are potential Earth crossing asteroids, the agency is far beyond schedule, having identified only an estimated 10% thus far.

Specifically, the number is 11,230 Near Earth Objects identified through July 2014, with 1,492 classified as potentially hazardous objects, those whose diameter is 150 meters or greater and whose orbits could intersect with ours. Of those, 892 have diameters of 1 km or larger. Lack of funding, lack of staff, questionable contracting and an unorganized approach have all contributed to the limited progress to date.

There are some other factors worth considering as well.  While the search for potentially hazardous NEO’s is distinct from NASA’s proposed Asteroid Re-Direct Mission, the two are still very much related. Given that the ARM is the only specific mission for the $3 billion plus per year SLS/Orion program to be put forward by the agency beyond an initial crewed test flight in 2021,  it is all the more astounding that the agency has put so little effort into coordinating the search, especially when considering the fact that NASA has struggled to find a suitable target for ARM in the first place.

As the OIG report points out, if actually identifying 90% of the entire asteroid population quickly, as called for by the Space Act of 2005 had been a priority, then the most expedient step would have been to commission a new space based telescope, or fleet of them, to look for them.  That did not happen, as taking the threat seriously would have required a much larger budget allocated by Congress, as well as an entirely different programmatic approach. Instead, with limited resources, NASA has gone with the less expensive, but less effective ground based approach, even as private interests have entered the picture with the B612 Foundation and its Sentinel project.

You might think NASA would be bending itself backwards to direct financial support to B612, but thus far it has only offered technical support in the form of unfunded Space Act Agreements.


Posted in: Asteroids, NASA

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1 Comment on "Deep Impact: NASA OIG Report Demolishes Asteroid Detection Program"

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  1. Sounds like the Obama administration is really not serious about its meteoroid retrieval program:-)

    What a surprise!


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