Nasa's asteroid defence programme far behind schedule, says audit

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US space agency's program to detect and protect the Earth from incoming asteroids is poorly managed and far behind schedule, said a government audit report on Monday.

Just one million of the programme's US$40 million (S$50.55 million) annual budget is spent on strategies to deflect an incoming asteroid or evacuate areas in danger of impact, said the report by NASA inspector General Paul Martin.

NASA was tasked by Congress in 2005 to establish a programme for tracking near-Earth objects (NEO) greater than 140 metres in diameter, to decide on their threat and to catalogue 90 per cent of these objects by 2020.

"While the programme has discovered, categorised, and plotted the orbits of more than 11,000 NEOs since 1998, NASA estimates that it has identified only 10 per cent of all asteroids 140 metres and larger and will not meet the 2020 deadline," said the audit.

Furthermore, it described NASA's NEO Programme as organised under "a single programme executive who manages a loosely structured, non-integrated conglomerate of research activities with little coordination, insufficient programme oversight, and no established milestones to track progress".

The report noted that most NEOs are harmless and disintegrate before they reach the surface of the Earth. However, some survive, it said, pointing to the 18-metre meteor that exploded above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 "with the force of 30 atomic bombs, blowing out windows, destroying buildings, and injuring more than 1,000 people".

Other problems with NASA management of the programme included an asteroid redirect mission that was not managed by the NEO programme, and "inadequate controls to ensure proper accounting of agency-funded grants and task orders".

The "lack of planning and resources has prevented the NEO Programme from developing additional agreements that could help achieve programme goals," it added. "For example, establishing formal partnerships with the Department of Defence, the National Science Foundation, and international agencies could give the NEO Programme access to additional Earth-based telescopes and thereby increase its ability to detect, track, and characterise a greater number of NEOs."

The report said NASA spends just seven per cent of its US$40 million budget on "studying mitigation strategies to defend the Earth from the effects of NEO impacts," including civil defence strategies, emergency evacuations or "attempting to destroy or deflect the trajectory of an Earth-bound NEO".

It urged NASA to manage the programme according to standard NASA research programme requirements, and to make it a formal NEO programme with a strategic plan.

"NASA concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions," the audit said.