Past Near Earth Objects Outcomes
The information below is a historical reference of the Foundation's work prior to December 2004. Due to financial constraints, we are no longer engaged in Near Earth Objects grantmaking or public policy activities. Read about the Foundation's strategic and financial changes.
Our Interest in NEOs
Experts estimate that the odds of dying from an asteroid, otherwise called a Near Earth Object (or NEO), colliding with the Earth are 1 in 20,000, about the same as that of dying in a plane crash. The real problem, however, is that an asteroid of one kilometer or greater in diameter could destroy the Earth. In late 2001 and early 2002, a number of sizeable asteroids were reported that had orbits that would bring them relatively close to Earth. This increased the public's awareness about the potential horrific impact of an asteroid.
The technology and facilities that exist today are capable of finding and predicting the path of NEOs. NEOs with the potential to hit the Earth need to be predicted with sufficient advance notice for governments to mount a deterrent response. Within the United States government, NASA's short-term goal is to find at least 90% of the NEOs larger than one kilometer in diameter. In the long-term, it must estimate how many NEOs larger than 200 meters in diameter exist, since these NEOs could do significant damage, and develop the technology to deflect the path of an asteroid away from the Earth.
The Foundation believes that governments throughout the world should be significantly increasing their funding of research to identify NEOs that have the potential to destroy or significantly damage the Earth. Unfortunately, current funding is very limited in comparison to the magnitude of the threat. Prior to December 2004, we actively engaged in funding this research in the United States and educated the public and potential donors about the value of early identification.
What are NEOs or Asteroids?
In 1802, the astronomer William Herschel used the word asteroid, which means "star-like" in Greek, to describe these celestial objects that are visible only because they reflect sunlight. Ranging in size from dust particles to significant bodies hundreds of miles in diameter (Ceres, the largest observed, is 913 kilometers in diameter), the total mass of all asteroids is believed to be less than that of the Moon.
Asteroids are found in different places in the solar system. Most of them orbit around the Sun, grouped in the main belt, while others are farther objects, with highly unpredictable orbits, such as the Trojans, which lie on the orbit of Jupiter, or the Centaurs, in the very outer solar system. Asteroids that, for some dynamic mechanism, closely approach the Earth are the ones referred to as NEAs (Near Earth Asteroids), NEOs (Near Earth Objects) or PHAs (Potentially Hazardous Asteroids).
Aside from the Moon, NEOs such as Eros, the target of a very successful NASA mission to find out just what asteroids are made of, are our closest neighbors in the solar system so it is worth our time to learn about them. If people and governments are considering either redirecting NEOs into a different (safer for Earth) orbit or destroying them, then we need to know their composition. This would enable us to determine where to give an asteroid an effective push or whether its fragments will disperse as much as we hope. NASA targeted Eros because it is actually the second largest of a family of asteroids that can approach within 121 million miles of the Sun--that is, possibly within a few million miles of Earth a "near miss" in astronomical terms.
Identifying NEOs and Their Orbits
Early efforts to discover NEOs relied upon the comparison of photographic films of the same region of the sky taken several minutes apart. Because a moving NEO would be in a slightly different position on each photograph and the background stars and galaxies were not, the NEOs appeared to rise above the background stars when viewed with special stereo viewing microscopes.
NEOs discovery teams now use charged couple devices (CCD) rather than photographs for their observations. CCD cameras are similar to those used in camcorders and they record images digitally in many electronic picture elements (pixels). While the CCD technology allows today's detectors to be more sensitive and accurate than the older photographic methods, the modern discovery technique itself is rather similar. Separated by several minutes, three or more CCD images are taken of the same region of the sky. These images are then compared to see if any NEOs have systematically moved to different positions on each of the separate images. For a newly discovered NEO, the separation of the object's location from one image to another, the direction it appears to be traveling, and its brightness are helpful in identifying how close the object is to the Earth, its size and its general orbital characteristics. An object that appears to be moving very rapidly from one image to the next is likely very close to the Earth. Sophisticated computer-aided analyses of the CCD images have replaced the older, manual stereomicroscope techniques for all the current NEOs search programs.
The ability to search a large portion of sky each month directly affects the discovery team's success in finding new NEOs. How much sky each telescope covers per month depends on a number of factors including the number of clear nights available for observing, the sensitivity and efficiency of the CCD detector, and the field of view of the telescope. Wide field of view telescopes can cover more sky per given time period than telescopes with narrower fields of view. It is also important for search teams to extend their searches to greater and greater distances from the Earth or, in other words, to use technology to allow telescopes to go to fainter and fainter limiting magnitudes.
Prior Policy Efforts
Given the clear need to address the threat from NEOs, the Kirsch Foundation has contracted with a Washington, DC, government relations firm to undertake a campaign for augmented funding in the 2003-04 congressional budget cycle for NEOs detection and tracking research. Our legislative campaign focused on securing $4 million in NASA’s fiscal year 2005 Space Science Budget to partially fund the operation of the PanSTARRS telescope project in Hawaii and support necessary requirements to detect, track and catalogue NEOs greater than 140 meters in diameter. We sought and found champions in both the House and Senate to make our $4 million appropriations request. Our congressional champions included Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Representatives Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA). In addition, we met with a variety of researchers and scientific experts dedicated to NEOs detection, identification and tracking work. Unfortunately, Congress had difficulty passing its budget at the end of 2004, and many critical programs were left unfunded, including our NEOs project.
While we weren’t successful in increasing NASA’s budget for NEOs identification and tracking through the congressional budget process, we increased the issue’s visibility among members of Congress and their staffs, and in the larger NEOs research community. Given the Foundation’s announced transition plans, it is our hope that others will continue to focus their time and energy on NEOs research, and that this issue will receive the attention and resources it deserves.
Why We Embarked on a Legislative Campaign
We believe that governments throughout the world should significantly increase their funding of research to identify and track NEOs that have the potential to destroy or significantly damage the Earth. Current funding is limited in comparison to the magnitude of the threat. Experts estimate that the odds of dying from an asteroid colliding with the Earth are 1 in 20,000 about the same as that of dying in a plane crash. Asteroids also have the potential to cause significant damage to the planet and there have been near misses, in astronomical terms, in recent years.
The technology and facilities that exist today are capable of finding and predicting the path of asteroids. NEOs with the potential to impact the Earth need to be predicted with sufficient advance notice for governments to mount a deterrent response. Over the last decade, NASA's policy has been to focus on finding at least 90% of the NEOs larger than one kilometer in diameter, estimating how many NEOs larger than 140 meters to 1 kilometer in diameter exist, and developing the technology to deflect the path of an asteroid away from the Earth.
In a September 2003 report, a 12-person NASA panel concluded that there is much more to be done to properly understand the threat from NEOs. While astronomers appear on track to identify asteroids larger than one kilometer by 2008, a half-million smaller NEOs which hit every 1,000 years and could kill hundreds of thousands remain to be found and are a substantial risk to Earth. NASA has been spending $3-4 million a year to find and characterize the estimated 1,100 large-sized NEOs, a goal it set in 1998 under pressure from Congress. The panel found that the risk of impact could be reduced by a further 90% by looking harder and longer using ground-based or space-based telescopes. Extended searches those lasting 20 years or less would cost a total of $236 million to $397 million, which is three to five times NASA's current NEO search budget.
In the initial years of the Foundation's existence and up until 2003, we focused on providing grants to researchers who worked to identify and track NEOs through our Medical Science Project Grants.
Funding for NEO Identification and Research
This list reflects information found on the Web and from NEOs search groups:
Visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's NEOs Web Site for updates, orbits, automated asteroid impact monitoring system, links and other information. Learn more about the groups that are currently involved in NEOs studies around the globe via the following links:
Online Impact Calculator:
Other Related Groups:
Read new and historical press coverage about NEOs.
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