06 March 2007

Whose job is it to find killer asteriods?

Congress says it's NASA's; NASA replies not on this budget! I think they're going about it wrong. NASA's job is the exploration of space - specifically, going to objects. NASA employs far more engineers than astronomers. It's the job of astronomers to look at objects, and that is all that's required to find asteroids. True, NASA runs the space observatories, but that's only because they've gotta get up there somehow. Once they're up there, the majority of the time on them is thrown open to anyone who applies for the time - generally astronomers, not engineers.

I think the best bet would be for Congress to establish another National Observatory, let's call it the National Asteroid Observatory (NAO), along the lines of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, runs Arecibo and the VLA, among others) or the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, runs most of the telescopes on Kitt Peak, among others). Or, since those are based upon wavelength regimes and we wish to base upon the target instead, a more similar model might be the National Solar Observatory (NSO, Kitt Peak and Sac Peak primarily). All of these are under the National Science Foundation (NSF, currently has a telescope doohickey linked on their frontpage, whose sound effects fascinate Gabe). The new organization would also cooperate with NASA to get any actual deflection missions done, but *detection* is a research thing, not an engineering thing.

And the bonus value-added feature of having a new group independant of NASA? NASA wouldn't be able to fuxx0r it up.


Galbinus_Caeli said...

Interesting proposal. Would a National Asteroid Detection System require its own equipment? Or would it share time with the extant, overloaded, observatories? And what is the best detection method? Optical, IR, Radar, Something Else?

zandperl said...

The model in my head is that the National Asteroid Observatory would have dedicated equipment that would be designed for asteroid targets, have reserved time for astronomers at the NAO, and have additional time anyone could apply for. This is similar to the model of the NSO, and not too far from the NRAO and NOAO (except that their equipment isn't designed for a particular target while the NSO's is).

We do have a number of existing dedicated asteroid detection systems, such as LINEAR, just not enough. New detection systems should probably be optical (IR has interference from the sky's heat, Radio is low resolution), wide angle, and automated. (Data mining can also be done with existing data, but would probably be less efficent.) Follow up systems should probably also be optical, must be able to take spectra (composition, rotation), and track fast (in case we've got a near-Earth asteroid to follow). Follow up systems should definitely be open to proposals from any astronomer, though perhaps detection systems should have some open time as well.

Simultaneously NASA should be working on building missions to a few different types of objects, and NASA astronomers should keep their thumb on the pulse of the NAO so they can help pick targets.