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JPL will establish Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA

Mary Beth Murrill and Mark Whalen

From the "JPL Universe"
July 24, 1998

A new program office to coordinate NASA-sponsored efforts to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach Earth will be established at JPL.

The agency's Near-Earth Object Program Office will focus on the goal of locating at least 90 percent of the estimated 2,000 asteroids and comets that approach the Earth and are larger than about 1 kilometer (about 2/3-mile) in diameter, by the end of the next decade.
Dr. Donald Yeomans will manage the
new Near-Earth Object Program at JPL.
"These are objects that are difficult to detect because of their relatively small size, but are large enough to cause global effects if one hit the Earth," said astronomer Dr. Donald Yeomans of JPL, who will head the new program office. "Finding a majority of this population will require the efforts of researchers at several NASA centers, at universities and at observatories across the country, and will require the participation by the international astronomy community as well."

"We determined that in order to achieve our goals we need a more formal focusing of our near-Earth object tracking efforts and related communications with the supporting research community," said Dr. Carl Pilcher, science director for Solar System Exploration in NASA's Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters. "I want to emphasize that science research solicitations and resulting peer reviews, international coordination, and strategic planning regarding future missions will remain the responsibility of NASA Headquarters."

In addition to managing the detection and cataloging of near-Earth objects, the new NASA office will be responsible for facilitating communications between the astronomical community and the public should any potentially hazardous objects be discovered as a result of the program, Pilcher said.

JPL was selected to host the program office because of its expertise in precision tracking of the positions and predicted paths of asteroids and comets. No significant additional staff hiring at JPL is expected at this time.

"There is some extraordinary research being done on near-Earth objects and much of it is ongoing here at JPL," Yeomans said.

"There is the near-Earth asteroid tracking program (NEAT) run by Eleanor Helin and her colleagues, the radar studies done by Steve Ostro and his colleagues, observations at Table Mountain Observatory, and dynamical studies by Al Harris, Paul Weissman and Paul Chodas, to name a few. JPL is also involved with seven missions to comets and asteroids in the next decade and a half," Yeomans added.

The establishment of the program office, he said, is an effort to facilitate and coordinate the ground-based observations of near-Earth objects and to develop a strategy for the scientific exploration of these objects, including their discovery, tracking, physical characterization, spacecraft observations and resource potential. Driven by more sensitive charged-couple device (CCD) detectors, the rate of discovery of near-Earth objects continues to accelerate, he noted.

Yeomans noted that personnel within the program office will maintain an up-to-date database of near-Earth objects and "routinely propagate their motions forward for tens of years to see whether any of these objects will make interesting, close-Earth approaches."

This activity is not only for hazard assessment, he said, but also to identify optimal opportunities for ground-and space-based observations of these objects and "to identify which bodies might be exploited for their mineral wealth in the next century. Asteroids offer extraordinary mineral resources for the structures required to colonize the inner solar system and comets, and with their vast supplies of water ice, could provide life-sustaining water as well as the liquid oxygen and hydrogen required for rocket fuel."

"It seems ironic that the very objects that bear watching because they could threaten Earth are the same ones that are most easily accessible to future space missions - missions that might exploit their considerable resources," he said.

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