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NASA’s Watchdog Office Criticizes Asteroid-Hunting Program

Image: Asteroid strike

An artist's conception shows an asteroid striking Earth. Getty Images file

An internal watchdog office says that NASA's efforts to identify, track and do something about potentially threatening asteroids are not well-integrated and lack proper oversight. Top NASA executives agreed with the criticism and promised to fix the problems within a year.

Monday's report from NASA's Office of Inspector General focuses on the agency's program to deal with near-Earth objects. That program is budgeted at $40 million a year, which represents a tenfold increase over what it was five years ago. The NEO Program Office coordinates NASA's efforts to catalog comets and asteroids in Earth-crossing orbits — and also plays a role in planning future missions to near-Earth objects.

One of the office's goals, mandated by Congress almost a decade ago, is to track at least 90 percent of the near-Earth objects wider than 460 feet (140 meters) by 2020. Objects of that size could cause regional devastation if they were to hit Earth at just the wrong place.

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Last year's blowup of a much smaller asteroid over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, which caused millions of dollars of damage and injured more than 1,000 people, drew the world's attention to the threat posed by near-Earth objects.

However, the inspector general's report said NASA wouldn't meet its 2020 goal, given its current structure and resources. It suggested that the lack of coordination was part of the problem.

"We believe the program would be more efficient, effective and transparent were it organized and managed in accordance with standard NASA research program requirements," the inspector general's report said.

The report faulted the NEO Program's lack of structure, and said its resources are inadequate for handling its growing agenda. In addition to the program's Washington-based executive, Lindley Johnson, NASA funding goes to support six employees at the Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts and six more at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the inspector general's office said.

The report said the program's executive fell short when it came to overseeing progress in the asteroid-tracking effort. What's more, there were no formal partnerships with the Defense Department or the National Science Foundation, or with international space agencies. Those groups could make significant contributions to the effort, the report said.

NASA promises changes

Even before Monday's publication, the inspector general's office shared a draft of the report with John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the science mission directorate. In a written response, Grunsfeld said NASA management concurred with the report and laid out a schedule for making changes.

By next March, NASA plans to develop a revised set of internal policies and figure out how many staff members will be needed for the NEO Program. The space agency said it will lay out a new strategic plan for the program by next September. That's also the promised time frame for establishing a plan for additional formal partnerships, and for developing an oversight process to make sure asteroid detection efforts are coordinated and not duplicative.

The inspector general's office said Grunsfeld's comments were "responsive" to the concerns raised by the report, and that it would close the case "upon verification and completion of the proposed corrective actions."

Update for 6:35 p.m. ET Sept. 15: In a statement issued by NASA Headquarters, Grunsfeld emphasized the agency's commitment to the asteroid-hunting effort:

"NASA places a high priority on finding and characterizing hazardous asteroids to protect our home planet from them. Over the past five years, NASA has increased by a factor of 10 our nation's investment in asteroid detection, characterization and mitigation activities. In addition, NASA has aggressively developed strategies and plans with its partners in the U.S. and abroad to detect, track and characterize NEOs and identify those that might pose a risk of Earth impact, and is developing options for planetary defense. As part of the agency’s overall asteroid initiative, we will act on the IG’s recommendations."