NASA asteroid defense program falls short: audit

September 15, 2014

The US space agency's program to detect and protect the Earth from incoming asteroids is poorly managed and far behind schedule, said a government audit report on Monday.

Just one million of the program's $40 million annual budget is spent on strategies to deflect an incoming asteroid or evacuate areas in danger of impact, said the report by NASA inspector General Paul Martin.

NASA was tasked by Congress in 2005 to establish a program for tracking near-Earth objects (NEO) greater than 140 meters in diameter (460 feet), to decide on their threat and to catalogue 90 percent of these objects by 2020.

"While the program has discovered, categorized, and plotted the orbits of more than 11,000 NEOs since 1998, NASA estimates that it has identified only 10 percent of all asteroids 140 meters and larger and will not meet the 2020 deadline," said the audit.

Furthermore, it described NASA's NEO Program as organized under "a single program executive who manages a loosely structured, non-integrated conglomerate of research activities with little coordination, insufficient program oversight, and no established milestones to track progress."

The report noted that most NEOs are harmless and disintegrate before they reach the surface of the Earth.

However, some survive, it said, pointing to the 18-meter (57-foot) meteor that exploded above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 "with the force of 30 atomic bombs, blowing out windows, destroying buildings, and injuring more than 1,000 people."

Other problems with NASA management of the program included an asteroid redirect mission that was not managed by the NEO program, and "inadequate controls to ensure proper accounting of agency-funded grants and task orders."

The "lack of planning and resources has prevented the NEO Program from developing additional agreements that could help achieve program goals," it added.

"For example, establishing formal partnerships with the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and international agencies could give the NEO Program access to additional Earth-based telescopes and thereby increase its ability to detect, track, and characterize a greater number of NEOs."

The report said NASA spends just seven percent of its $40 million budget on "studying mitigation strategies to defend the Earth from the effects of NEO impacts," including civil defense strategies, emergency evacuations or "attempting to destroy or deflect the trajectory of an Earth-bound NEO."

It urged NASA to manage the program according to standard NASA research program requirements, and to make it a formal NEO program with a strategic plan.

"NASA concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions," the audit said.

Explore further: Rendezvous with a near Earth object

Related Stories

Rendezvous with a near Earth object

October 25, 2011

( -- One of the most accessible goals for human spaceflight is a rendezvous with a Near Earth Object (NEO). NEOs are asteroids or comets whose orbits take them close to the earth's orbit. An NEO might someday ...

Ten thousandth near-Earth object unearthed in space

June 25, 2013

( —More than 10,000 asteroids and comets that can pass near Earth have now been discovered. The 10,000th near-Earth object, asteroid 2013 MZ5, was first detected on the night of June 18, 2013, by the Pan-STARRS-1 ...

Asteroid discovered by NASA to pass Earth safely

June 9, 2014

( —A newfound asteroid will safely pass Earth on June 8 from a distance of about 777,000 miles (1.25 million kilometers), more than three times farther away than our moon.

The properties of a six-meter near-Earth object

June 27, 2014

( —Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are asteroids (or comets) whose orbits sometimes bring them close to the earth's orbit. Thus they could potentially collide with the Earth, giving them considerably more parochial interest ...

Looking back at the Jupiter crash 20 years later

July 16, 2014

( —Twenty years ago, human and robotic eyes observed the first recorded impact between cosmic bodies in the solar system, as fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Recommended for you

First stars formed even later than previously thought

August 31, 2016

ESA's Planck satellite has revealed that the first stars in the Universe started forming later than previous observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background indicated. This new analysis also shows that these stars were the ...

Dawn sets course for higher orbit

August 31, 2016

After studying Ceres for more than eight months from its low-altitude science orbit, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will move higher up for different views of the dwarf planet.

Galaxy cluster discovered at record-breaking distance

August 31, 2016

A new record for the most distant galaxy cluster has been set using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes. This galaxy cluster may have been caught right after birth, a brief, but important stage of evolution ...

The rise and fall of galaxy formation

August 30, 2016

An international team of astronomers, including Carnegie's Eric Persson, has charted the rise and fall of galaxies over 90 percent of cosmic history. Their work, which includes some of the most sensitive astronomical measurements ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 15, 2014
First, most NEOs do not disintegrate, since most do not collide with the Earth ( or its atmosphere). Second, according to the article NASA was NOT tasked with either mitigation or Civil Defense. This is called "mission creep" and including it is inappropriate for an audit. NASA does NOT have the statutory authority for either of these tasks. Although it makes sense to study possible mitigation methods since determining their threat requires evaluation of this. Poor program oversight is inexcusable, as is lack of a timeline and deliverables, but expecting some well structured project when the unknowns are unknown is silly political nonsense. Exploratory programs by their very nature need to be far more flexible than clear goal directed projects.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2014
Bureaucratic speak for "we can't."
5 / 5 (1) Sep 16, 2014
A great number of the 1000+ injuries of the Chelyabinsk strike were caused by flying glass; seeing the bright flash in the sky, people rushed to the windows to see what it was.

In one classroom, the teacher remembered her Soviet training and told her students to hide under their desks; in this classroom, there were no injuries.

"Duck and Cover" is a viable method of protecting yourself from nearby impacts, although nothing can protect you from an impact ON your location.
Sep 16, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.