NASA prioritizes asteroid defense; puts NEO Surveyor project into development
US space agency NASA is finally making defense from asteroids a priority. It has put The Planetary Society's NEO Surveyor project into development and is eyeing its launch sometime in 2028. First proposed in 2005, NEO Surveyor is a satellite that will look out for asteroids and other small objects near Earth that might be on a potential collision course with our planet.
Why does this story matter?
- NASA had set a deadline of finding 90% of the estimated 25,000 Near Earth Objects (NEOs) larger than 140 meters by 2020. However, it managed 37%.
- NEO Surveyor aims to speed up the process. It will scan regions of space we can't see clearly from Earth and will be a superior alternative to ground-based telescopes.
- Asteroid deflection missions will also be aided.
The NEO Surveyor project had a rough journey
NASA was interested in NEO Surveyor since 2005. However, the plans were hampered due to bureaucracy. The agency faced budgetary problems and scrapped the project's budget for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. This forced project scientists and engineers to move on. However, NASA again picked up the project recently and its bill ballooned to $1.2 billion. It is unlikely to be scrapped again.
What's next for the project?
All NASA projects have a five-step cycle. As funding is secure, the mission will now go through the building and testing of flight hardware. At the end of the third phase, the entire hardware should be ready for the final assembly as well as tests. All of this is a long way away. Don't expect the satellite to collect data from space anytime soon.
What is NEO Surveyor and how will it work?
The NEO Surveyor is a 50cm-wide space telescope that can see objects in infrared wavelengths. The infrared will reveal asteroids' heat signatures because they heat up due to the Sun, making it easier to make them out against the blackness of space. It will be parked at Sun-Earth L1 point (1.5 million kilometers from Earth) where the spacecraft can stay without using much fuel.
NASA has been successful in deviating an asteroid's path
While NEO Surveyor will look for NEOs in the future, NASA has already conducted its first planetary defense test. The mission was known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). Launched in November 2021, the vending machine-sized DART probe made contact with an asteroid called Dimorphos, to slightly deviate its course. The mission was successful and scientists are now going through the test results.