NASA is delaying the assessment of the detection mission for asteroids near Earth

WASHINGTON – NASA has delayed moving a proposed near-Earth object search mission to the next stage of development due to uncertainty about the budget that will be available for it.

NASA planned to conduct a study this month known as Key Decision Point (KDP) B of the Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor spacecraft, a space-based infrared telescope that would search for asteroids near the earth. By competing with that assessment, the mission could move to Phase B, in support of the preliminary design and completion of the key enabling technologies required to do so.

However, the agency’s spokesperson, Gray Hautaluoma, confirmed to SpaceNews that the KDP-B review has been delayed until spring 2021. “The decision to delay the start of the next phase of this important mission is based on factors that are outside the NEO Surveyor project team. , ”He said in a statement on December 14. In particular, NASA needs more time to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the Planetary Science Division’s overall budget and assess the appropriate life cycle costs for this mission to support decisions at KDP-B as NEO’s formulation business Surveyor continue. “

The delay has taken many in the planetary scientific community by surprise. At a November 30 meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, agency officials said a review by a NASA Program Management Board was scheduled for the week of December 7 to allow the mission to enter Phase B.

However, they also recognized that the mission was under budget pressure. “There are some substantial funding challenges in the current budget we have,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, during the committee meeting. “Even with that, we are still implementing NEO Surveyor to phase B.” That transition to phase B would happen “relatively quickly,” she added.

In a Dec. 15 roundtable on NASA asteroid missions at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, Lindley Johnson, head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, confirmed that budgetary issues prompted NASA to delay the KDP-B milestone for the mission.

“The decision to enter Phase B, Key Decision Point B, was postponed until some time next spring due to uncertainty over the budget for the project,” he said. “Currently, the planetary defense program in the budget line for the next five years does not have enough funding to accomplish this mission.”

He added uncertainty to the wider planetary science budget due to the impact of COVID-19 on several projects, as well as a transition from presidential governments, which also contributed to the decision to delay KDP-B. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, he said, “decided to delay this entry into Phase B until that budget picture became a bit clearer.”

NASA sought $ 150 million for its planetary defense program in the 2021 budget year in February 2021. That included funding for one mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), scheduled for launch in July 2021, along with other support for near-Earth observations, including the NEO Surveyor spacecraft.

However, the five-year budget projection for the planetary defense program predicted a drop in spending to $ 98 million per year by fiscal year 2023, and remained at that level through 2025. NASA, like other federal agencies, has partnered with the White House . Office of Management and Budget on its budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, which includes projections up to fiscal year 2026. Those proposals will be revised and revised by the new Biden administration, likely delaying their publication until spring.

Johnson stressed that the work on NEO Surveyor is going well. It completed both a system requirements review and a mission design review, and received what it called “ high marks ” in a technical review from a standing review board.

NASA announced in September 2019 that it would pursue NEO Surveyor, also known as the NEO Surveillance Mission (NEOSM), as a targeted mission within NASA’s planetary defense program. It is the successor to NEOCam, a finalist in the previous round of NASA’s Discovery Program of Planetary Science Missions.

While NASA did not select NEOCam for development in the Discovery program, it did provide “extended Phase A” funding to mature the technologies for its infrared instrument. NASA last year predicted the mission would cost between $ 500 million and $ 600 million, with a launch in the mid-2020s.

NASA justified continuing with NEOSM as a focused mission, rather than having to compete again in the Discovery program, because its objectives are not purely scientific. The spacecraft is designed to enable NASA to achieve a congressional goal of discovering at least 90% of near-Earth objects with a diameter of at least 140 meters.

Congress, in a 2005 NASA authorization law, mandated NASA to achieve that goal by 2020, but ground investigations fall short. Johnson said of the estimated population of 25,000 objects near Earth with a diameter of at least 140 meters, astronomers have discovered only about 9,500.

At the current rate of discoveries, it “will take several more decades” to reach that goal, he said. “An enhanced capability, like NEOSM, is what we need to really achieve this goal that Congress gave us some 15 years ago.”