NASA’s effort to identify potentially dangerous space rocks has taken a hit.
On Monday, the space agency’s inspector-general released a report blasting NASA’s Near Earth Objects program, which is meant to hunt and catalogue comets, asteroids and relatively large fragments of these objects that pass within 45 million kilometres of Earth.
The purpose is to protect the planet against their potential dangers.
Most near-Earth objects harmlessly disintegrate before reaching Earth’s surface. But there are exceptions, like the nearly 20m meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013, causing considerable damage.
In a 44-page report, Inspector-General Paul Martin said the Near Earth Objects program needs to be better organised and managed, with a bigger staff.
NASA’s science mission chief, former astronaut John Grunsfeld, agreed and promised the problems will be fixed.
“NASA places a high priority on finding and characterising hazardous asteroids to protect our home planet from them” he said in a statement.
According to the report, the program has an executive at NASA headquarters and two offices in Massachusetts and California, each with six employees.
For nearly a decade, the report noted, NASA has been tracking near-Earth objects bigger than 140m across. The goal was to catalogue 90 per cent by 2020.
The space agency has discovered and plotted the orbits of more than 11,000 near-Earth objects since 1998, an estimated 10 per cent. It does not expect to meet the 2020 deadline.
The program has insufficient oversight, Martin’s office concluded, and no established milestones to track progress. In addition, NASA needs to do a better job of overseeing the various observatories searching for near-Earth objects, and teaming up with other US and international agencies, the report said.