TECH

NASA Asteroid Detection Strategy Is 'Behind Schedule' And Poorly Managed. Gulp

16/09/2014 15:56 BST | Updated 16/09/2014 15:59 BST

Well this is worrying.

Nasa's ability to track and protect Earth from asteroids is officially behind schedule, poorly managed and practically useless.

According to a new report by NASA's inspector general Paul Martin, the agency will fail to meet a key deadline it set to detect 90% of near-Earth asteroids bigger than 140 meters by 2020.

Even as it works on capturing and redirecting an asteroid in the near future (see above) the agency is unable to track the vast majority of potentially dangerous rocks.

earth asteroid

So far, the report said, only 10% of NEOs have been detected by NASA's specific program set up to do just that. That's no small number - it's more than 11,000 asteroids since 1998 - but it's nowhere near complete. And even smaller asteroids can be dangerous. The rock which exploded above Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013 was just 18 meters wide, but blew up with the force of 30 atomic bombs.

Martin said that the program has severe and profound flaws which put Earthlings in legitimate danger from asteroids.

It said the program is organised by: "a single program executive who manages a loosely structured, non-integrated conglomerate of research activities with little coordination, insufficient program oversight, and no established milestones to track progress."

It added that only $1 million per year of the programs $40 million annual funding was spent on evacuation or deflection strategies.

The "lack of planning and resources has prevented the NEO Program from developing additional agreements that could help achieve program goals," it added.

"For example, establishing formal partnerships with the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and international agencies could give the NEO Program access to additional Earth-based telescopes and thereby increase its ability to detect, track, and characterise a greater number of NEOs."

"NASA concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions," it concluded. This probably comes down to money, which NASA famously does not have.

Sadly none of this is entirely surprising. While efforts to detect and track asteroids are global in scope and ambition, none has yet proven anywhere near comprehensive. The program as a whole also shut down at the end of 2013 for the duration of the US government budget standoff.

Meanwhile NASA's current administrator Charles Bolden recently told Congress that the best hope for Earth in the event of a major asteroid strike was "prayer".

Gulp.