Events like last month’s Russian meteor and close approach by asteroid 2012 DA14—coincidental but taking place just hours apart—raised public awareness in the potential threats posed by near Earth objects (NEOs). It would also seem to be an opportunity for NASA in particular to seek additional funding to support its NEO detection efforts, which are lagging behind Congressionally-mandated goals for discovering these objects. Yet, at a hearing Tuesday on the issue by the House Science Committee, NASA administrator Charles Bolden seemed to downplay the threat and ask that additional money not be allocated to NEO programs—at least not at the expense of other NASA programs.
“We could come out of this hearing and decide that we really want to pour money into NEO detection and characterization, and that would not be the right thing to do,” Bolden said. He instead supported the overall 2013 budget request for NASA, which he said is “striking that proper balance” among the agency’s priorities.
Bolden’s rationale was that NEO impacts large enough to pose a threat were rare events. “The probability of any sizable NEO impacting Earth any time in the next 100 years is extremely remote,” he said in his opening statement. While citing several times NASA’s NEO detection and characterization efforts, he also noted NASA’s work on Orion and Space Launch System that will enable a human mission to an asteroid by 2025, something that he said also could also help in understanding asteroid impact mitigation activities.
“This is not an issue that we should worry about in the near term,” Bolden said late in the hearing. “We have a lot of work to do, but the funding that is presently laid out in the president’s budget is sufficient to get us there incrementally. We just have to move that plan forward.”
However, Bolden also admitted that current funding provided to NASA for its NEO work ($20.5 million in FY2012, up from just $4 million a few years earlier) was not sufficient to achieve the goal in NASA’s 2005 authorization act to discover 90 percent of the NEOs at least 140 meters in diameter by 2020. “At the present budget levels—and not the going-down budget levels—it will be 2030 before we can reach the 90-percent level as prescribed by Congress,” he said.
Bolden and presidential science advisor John Holdren mentioned several times NASA’s relationship with the B612 Foundation, the non-profit group raising money for a space telescope to look for NEOs, but did not directly advocate that NASA either help fund that mission or develop a similar mission. Bolden said that were NASA to develop such a mission it would cost about $750 million (B612 is estimating its Sentinel mission will cost about $500 million.)
Holdren, citing a 2010 National Academies report on NASA’s NEO search program, did suggest a significant increase in spending on NEO search efforts to reach the Congressional goal sooner. “I think we would want to be spending upwards of $100 million a year” on detection and characterization efforts, he said.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), appeared receptive to proposals to spend more on NEO programs. “That’s not particularly reassuring,” he said after Bolden said it would be 2030 to reach the 140-meter-class NEO detection goal. “Maybe we can can help you out with the budget.” However, he earlier warned that Congress wouldn’t write a blank check for this. “I do not believe that NASA is going to somehow defy budget gravity and get an increase when everyone else is getting cuts,” he said. “But we need to find ways to prioritize NASA’s projects and squeeze as much productivity as we can out of the funds we have.”