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NASA should protect Earth from space rocks, panel finds

A NASA task force says the space agency should make protecting the planet a strategic goal.

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Earth from Space, photographed by astronauts aboard Apollo 16, April 16, 1972. A task force recommends NASA protect Earth from space rocks.

NASA/Newscom

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Protecting Earth from menacing space rocks that could impact our planet should be designated a top-level NASA strategic goal, according to an agency task force. To achieve that goal, NASA should establish a Planetary Defense Coordination Office to oversee the effort, the task force said.

The seven-person NASA Advisory Council's Ad-Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense called for the new asteroid-watching office after reviewing ideas for detecting, characterizing and deflecting threatening near-Earth objects (NEOs), as well as discussing international coordination to deal with the issue.

The task force, which met here July 8-9, is reviewing its advocacy of launching an infrared detector spacecraft placed into a Venus-like orbit to provide a long-distance lookout for NEOs, which could speed up surveillance duties by decades compared to relying solely on ground-based observations.

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Pro-active prevention

Former astronauts Russell Schweickart and Tom Jones are co-chairs of the Ad-Hoc Task Force, which is made up of members from academia and scientific institutions including NASA.

"At the end of our process, our recommendations will go to the NASA Administrator and for the first time will address the overall issue of protecting the planet from asteroid impacts," Schweickart told SPACE.com. "Those recommendations will include not only finding NEOs that potentially pose a threat, but pro-active prevention of impacts...and working with the international community in order to be prepared to take that kind of action," he said. [Gallery: Holes in the Earth]

The group's output "will be the first time NASA will have that kind of serious, internal set of recommendations," Schweickart added.

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"It really is a turning point," said Don Yeomans, a task force member and Manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"For decades we were bumping along, barely aware that there were near-Earth objects. When NASA got involved in the mid-1990s... there's been a dramatic increase in the discovery rate. It was sort of an 'ah-ha' moment for the community in terms of science," he told SPACE.com.

Emergency management issues

The task force members are investigating using off-the-shelf hardware to fabricate a ground-based short-term warning capability. Such gear could provide many days or hours of warning about smaller, incoming space rocks. Furthermore, using commercially-available equipment could help build a system that's inexpensive but powerful, and can be easily deployed around the globe.

The task force is also considering emergency management matters, such as what to do if Earth appears poised for a bruising impact.

Speaking to that topic via remote conferencing was Dennis Mileti, professor emeritus and former director of the Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an expert on societal aspects of hazards and disasters.

If NASA takes a lead role in planetary defense, the job of detecting threatening NEOs falls to the agency, Mileti advised. It is important, he said, to structure a highly reliable warning and messaging system, coupled with a public education campaign.

Blending NEO space scientists with emergency responders and disaster management agencies — including the Department of Homeland Security — is critical, Mileti said. "That's really mixed soup to weave together," he told the task force.

Mileti's message to NASA: "They'll need to provide the leadership to reach out to the emergency management community ... because it will not go the other way around."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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