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Near Earth Object Observations

NASA's Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program, managed in the Planetary Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., is responsible for finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects – asteroids and comets whose orbits periodically bring them close to Earth.

The NEO Observations Program sponsors research conducted at NASA field centers, astronomical observatories, and other locations around the United States.The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages a NEO Program Office for the Headquarters NEO Observations Program and conducts a number of Headquarters-sponsored NEO projects.

NASA has been studying NEOs since the 1970s, when the Agency initiated a Spaceguard Survey to search for NEOs. NASA now participates in an International Spaceguard Survey, initiated in 1996 and managed by the Spaceguard Foundation. To date, NASA-sponsored NEO surveys have provided 99 percent of NEO detections.

NASA officially established a NEO program in 1998 in response to congressional direction. The NASA NEO program has multiple mandates, including:

  • A 1994 request from House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to develop a plan to discover, characterize and catalog within ten years (to the extent practicable), the potentially threatening comets and asteroids larger than 1 kilometer in diameter.
  • A 1998 congressional directive to conduct a program to discover at least 90 percent of 1-kilometer-diameter or larger NEOs within ten years. (This mandate has been met).
  • A directive in NASA’s fiscal year 2005 authorization act to provide an analysis of alternatives to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects and develop a program by December 28, 2006, to survey 90 percent of the potentially hazardous objects measuring at least 140 meters in diameter by the end of 2020. In addition, this legislation directed NASA to submit an analysis of alternatives that NASA could employ to divert an object on a likely collision course with Earth. (NASA is in the process of complying with these directives.)
  • A directive in U.S. National Space Policy of June 28, 2010, to pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet and to identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects. (NASA is in the process of complying with this directive.)

The NEO Observations Program operated on a budget of a few million dollars per year from fiscal year 1998 through fiscal year 2011, at which point the program budget was about $4 million. In April 2010, the President announced a new goal for NASA: a human mission to an asteroid. Consequently, the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request included, and Congress authorized, $20.4 million for an expanded NASA NEO Observations Program. The Program was again expanded in fiscal year 2014, with a budget of $40 million.

The expanded NEO Observations Program is contributing to NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. The NEO Observations Program’s role in this initiative is to provide information on the orbits and characteristics of NEOs that might be accessible for human missions and NEOs that might pose a hazard of colliding with Earth.

The NEO Observations Program supports NEO surveysthat contribute to a sustained and productive campaign to find and track NEOs, collecting data of sufficient precision to allow accurate predictions of the trajectories of discovered objects. The Program also supports efforts to characterize a representative sample of NEOs by measuring their sizes, shapes, and compositions. In addition, the Program devotes a limited amount of funding to research into NEO impact mitigation and deflection strategies and techniques.

In fiscal year 2013, the NEO Observations Program supported 41 ongoing projects (compared to 29 in fiscal year 2012), including 5 detection and tracking campaigns, 10 follow-up surveys, 9 characterization efforts, 3 radar projects, 4 data processing and management projects, 6 technology development projects, and 4 studies of techniques for impact mitigation. Ten of these projects are being conducted by NASA centers, 2 by other federal agencies, 4 by space science institutes, 20 by university researchers, and 3 by private citizens.

All NEO search and tracking projects supported by the Program are required to make their data permanently available in a timely manner to the scientific community. The internationally recognized archive for this data is the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU’s) Minor Planet Center, located at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and supported by the NEO Observations Program.

In conducting its work, the NEO Observations Program collaborates with other U.S. government agencies, other national and international agencies, and professional and amateur astronomers around the world. For example, NASA works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of State on NEO impact warning, mitigation and response planning. The Program is responsible for facilitating communications between the astronomical community and the public should any potentially hazardous NEO be discovered. The Program also works closely with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and its Action Team on Near Earth Objects (also known as Action Team 14). The NEO Observations Program is a member of the International Asteroid Warning Network, a multinational project recommended by and operating independently of the U.N.

Responsible official:

Lindley Johnson, NEO Program Executive, NASA HQ

Related content:

JPL NEO Program Office http/:/neo.jpl.nasa.gov
NEO news http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch/
Minor Planet Center http://www.minorplanetcenter.net
NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group http://www.lpi.usra.edu/sbag/
International Asteroid Warning Network http://www.minorplanetcenter.net/IAWN/
NASA’s Asteroid Initiative http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/asteroids/initiative/index.html#.U0a5OhZLFI