When weighed against NASA's annual budget of USD 150 million, the observation effort is a relatively small part of the agency under its planetary defense program. However, the program holds a much higher profile as it attempts to search for any asteroids that might pose an impact risk to the Earth
FREMONT, CA: NASA's small yet high profile planetary defense program has overcome disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic to continue searching for potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. The Near Earth Objects (NEO) Observations Program is designed to support a variety of primarily ground-based efforts to discover, track, and characterize NEOs. However, these efforts were slowed down for a time by the pandemic, which forced the temporary closure of laboratories in the U.S. and other countries.
“We did see a number of observatories that had to close, either on their own or because their host organizations or host observatory sites had to close,” said Kelly Fast, manager of the NEO Observations Program. "The program hit an extreme point in terms of the number of observatories closed in late March, but since then, some observatories have found ways to resume at least partial operations with new COVID-19 safety protocols. That's included the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona as well as telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii."
The closures, however, did not significantly affect the number of new NEOs discovered. According to Kelly, this was a concern, but the statistics at the Minor Planet Center, what's being received there, and between what's coming in from the NASA efforts and around the world is being closely watched. She added that over 2,400 NEOs were discovered by various search efforts in 2019. Through early June of this year, 1,222 had been found.
When weighed against NASA's annual budget of USD 150 million, the observation effort is a relatively small part of the agency under its planetary defense program. However, the program holds a much higher profile as it attempts to search for any asteroids that might pose an impact risk to the Earth. Public opinion surveys have often ranked that program as a higher priority among the general public than some of NASA's far more considerable exploration efforts. The program’s budget also funds NASA’s first dedicated planetary defense mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), scheduled for launch in July 2021, on board a Falcon 9.
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