Space

Calling Space Command or Space Force – there’s an urgent mission waiting

Calling Space Command or Space Force – there’s an urgent mission waiting

By:  SSG Mark Armstrong

Whatever the origin or wisdom of the notion to stand up a new military element focused on Space Operations, there is momentum in this direction. As it happens, the Department of Defense announced that United States Space Command was re-formed as one of the DoDs unified commands last December. At the Space Symposium in Colorado, the most current plans to create the U.S. Space Force as a command within the Air Force were announced by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. If Congressional approval and $72 million in first-year funding is approved, the first steps will begin with the 2020 budget. Yet for many, the key question hasn’t been answered; what’s the point? Is this just a bureaucratic shuffle and a new 4-star command, or will the new command address new missions? There is such a mission, directly in line with the most important tasks appropriate for military space operations: planetary defense and space situational awareness.

The Jet Propulsion Lab’s Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission has been in development since 2006, and has reached a critical stage with a probable $40 million shortfall in funding from NASA to continue preparing the mission for launch in 2024. The NEOCam spacecraft would be parked at the equilibrium point between the Earth and Sun (known as Legrangian Point 1) in the perfect spot to identify and track the thousands of near Earth asteroids that could potentially strike the Earth and cause a disaster; looking away from the Sun and toward the Earth. It would be the most powerful instrument put into service to protect the Earth to date, and plans call for the NEOCam to complete the survey of near Earth objects that could cause massive destruction.

NEOCam’s primary instrument was successfully tested in 2013; it is a 20-inch infrared telescope with a large 11° field of view. NEOs as small as about 100 ft in diameter can be identified and tracked. Ultimately, the program’s goals include detection of a million objects in the asteroid belt in addition to cataloging NEOs.

In 2005 NASA was tasked with the identification and tracking of near earth objects, as well as determining their projected orbits and the potential for each NEO to strike the Earth. Congress specifically approved the ‘‘George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act’’ and noted these findings:

s“Near-Earth objects pose a serious and credible threat to humankind, as many scientists believe that a major asteroid or comet was responsible for the mass extinction of the majority of the Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs, nearly 65,000,000 years ago… Similar objects have struck the Earth or passed through the Earth’s atmosphere several times in the Earth’s history and pose a similar threat in the future… Several such near-Earth objects have only been discovered within days of the objects’ closest approach to Earth, and recent discoveries of such large objects indicate that many large near-Earth objects remain undiscovered… The efforts taken to date by NASA for detecting and characterizing the hazards of near-Earth objects are not sufficient to fully determine the threat posed by such objects to cause widespread destruction and loss of life.”

The goal set forth in the Act was to find 90% of NEOs before 2020. Using ground-based instruments, over seven thousand have been identified – but NASA estimates there are at least twice as many more that remain unidentified random threats. NASA is far behind the goals set forth by Congress in 2005. In 2016, the White House National Science and Technology Council published a report that estimated that about 70% of NEOs 140 meters or more in diameter have not been found. The report suggested there would be more than 2,000 such massive NEOs that potentially pose a threat to the Earth.

How much damage would such an impact cause? Business Insider presented a study in cartoon form to take part in World Asteroid Day, and reported that “One roughly the size of a football field could obliterate New York, causing a 7.7-magnitude earthquake that might be felt than 1,000 miles away.” In fact, on the same day in 2013 that a Congressional hearing discussed planetary defense, an asteroid the size of a six-story building exploded in the air over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk with the power of a nuclear explosion. 1,200 people were treated for injuries. It could have been much worse.

NASAs Chief Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, related that the Chelyabinsk asteroid strike happened only a month after he was sworn in as a Congressional Representative. In comments to the Planetary Defense Conference in April, he said “We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies… This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”

As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission, explained: “Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.” Currently available, ground-based instruments tasked with the near Earth object mission are not ideal – attempting infrared observations through the atmosphere is much more difficult.

To date, only 30% of near Earth objects have been surveyed. Studies have determined that space based instruments like the NEOCam would be the most efficient means to complete the near Earth survey and provide awareness of potential highly dangerous objects. Unfortunately, NASAs structure may be part of the problem holding back further funding for NEOCam, which is competing for funding as part of NASAs Discovery program, where the criteria seem to favor new missions to distant destinations in the solar system. Planetary defense has experienced more priority for funding, with $150 million proposed for 2019. A good deal of that budget will fund a project called DART, which will test the effectiveness of deflecting a near Earth object by impacting the asteroid Didymos.

Proponents of planetary defense have grown impatient – like former astronaut Ed Lu, who co-founded the B612 foundation to detect NEOs with a space telescope called Sentinal.

NASAs goals always compete for funding. As the space program tries to balance manned space exploration, astronomy, deep space missions with rovers, etc. Among the many projects submitted for development and launch, NEOCam has been passed over four times. With NASA developing plans to return to the Moon in 2024, other priorities like planetary defense may continue to fall by the wayside. For the current budget cycle, NEOCam is on a path to fall by the wayside due to lack of continued funding or at best hold on and hope for greater funding in the next few years. Again, with NASA focused on returning to the Moon, budget competition will be fierce.

Stanford Professor Roger Blandford suggested in Space News that new guidance from Congress directing the National Research Council to address planetary defense would push the issue forward. The NRC could review options including ground or space based proposed instruments or possible international cooperation efforts.

Now there is a new element – Space Force. Again, while “Space Force” as a separate command under the Air Force may not win the approval of Congress, current discussion in the House Appropriations Committee indicate there is support for full funding for U.S. Space Command and the Space Development Agency – totaling $234 million. Clearly, there is bipartisan recognition of the importance of military space operations, readiness, and new technology.

The National Security Space Strategy of the U.S. identifies critical national priorities for the Department of Defense, naturally centered on stability and ensuring access for U.S. operations and assets. If the missions determined to be the responsibility of the Department of Defense remain unchanged, those critics who see no purpose for a new Space Force may win the current war of words. After all, U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Space Command, and Army Space and Missile Defense Command are currently carrying out day to day space operations and maintaining space situational awareness while operating dozens of reconnaissance, communications, and GPS satellites. Dave Deptula’s article in Forbes expresses the widely held opinion that the Space Force makes no sense without a real mission.

So here’s a coincidence – a vital mission of planetary defense that may fall by the wayside among numerous missions competing for NASA funding at the same time the administration is proposing both a return to the Moon and new military operations that are focused on military space operations. While the cost for NEOCam may be too much for NASA, the Department of Defense may be able to re-prioritize funds to become a partner in NEOCam, and potentially assume a role in operating the mission. Perhaps the NEOCam could find itself operating, in about five years, designated as SF-1: Space Force – 1.

References

[1] Aaron Mehta, “SPACECOM is a go: newest combatant command signed into existence,” Defense News, 29 August 2019, retrieved from https://www.defensenews.com/space/2019/08/29/spacecom-is-a-go-newest-combatant-command-signed-into-existence/

[2] Melissa Leon, “Space Command to launch Aug. 29 as Trump’s ‘Space Force’ takes shape,” Fox News, 21 August 2019;, retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/science/space-command-trump-space-force

[3]Tim Fernholz, “NASA won’t launch a mission to hunt deadly asteroids,” Quartz, 5 July 2019, retrieved from https://qz.com/1659566/nasa-nixes-hunt-for-deadly-asteroids/

[4] U.S. Congress. (2005). “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005,” PUBLIC LAW 109–155, retrieved from https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-109publ155/pdf/PLAW-109publ155.pdf

[5] NASA. (2017). “New Report Assesses Status of Detecting Near-Earth Asteroids,” This summary references the full report. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/new-report-assesses-status-of-detecting-near-earth-asteroids

[6] Clark R. Chapman & David Morrison, “Impacts on the Earth by asteroids and comets: assessing the hazard,” Nature, Vol. 367, pages 33–40 (1994). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/367033a0

[7] Carly Casella, “NASA basically missed a huge asteroid that passed unnervingly close to earth,” Science Alert, 17 April 2018, retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/giant-football-field-size-asteroid-surprise-flyby-earth

[8] Elizabeth Howell, “Chelyabinsk meteor: a wake-up call for Earth,” Space, 9 January 2019, retrieved from https://www.space.com/33623-chelyabinsk-meteor-wake-up-call-for-earth.html

[9] Meghan Bartels, “It’s time to get serious about asteroid threats, NASA chief says,” 29 April 2019, retrieved from https://www.space.com/asteroid-threat-planetary-defense-nasa-chief.html

[10] Jeff Foust, “Scientists lobby NASA for additional planetary defense missions,” Space News, 29 April 2019, retrieved from https://spacenews.com/scientists-lobby-nasa-for-additional-planetary-defense-missions/

[11] Matt Williams, The next generation of exploration: the NEOCam mission,” Universe Today, 9 October 2015, retrieved from https://www.universetoday.com/122785/the-next-generation-of-exploration-the-neocam-mission/

[12] Jeff Foust, “Poll shows more public support for NASA science programs than human exploration,” Space News, 6 June 2018, retrieved from https://spacenews.com/poll-shows-more-public-support-for-nasa-science-programs-than-human-exploration/

[13] Roger Blandford, “Policing the (Cosmic) Neighborhood,” Space News, 15 September 2015, retrieved from https://spacenews.com/op-ed-policing-the-cosmic-neighborhood/

[14] U.S. Secretary of Defense & Director of National Intelligence joint publication, “National Security Space Strategy,” January 2011, retrieved from https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NSSS/NationalSecuritySpaceStrategyUnclassifiedSummary_Jan2011.pdf

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[1] Aaron Mehta, “SPACECOM is a go: newest combatant command signed into existence,” Defense News, 29 August 2019, retrieved from https://www.defensenews.com/space/2019/08/29/spacecom-is-a-go-newest-combatant-command-signed-into-existence/

[2] Melissa Leon, “Space Command to launch Aug. 29 as Trump’s ‘Space Force’ takes shape,” Fox News, 21 August 2019;, retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/science/space-command-trump-space-force

[3]Tim Fernholz, “NASA won’t launch a mission to hunt deadly asteroids,” Quartz, 5 July 2019, retrieved from https://qz.com/1659566/nasa-nixes-hunt-for-deadly-asteroids/

[4] U.S. Congress. (2005). “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005,” PUBLIC LAW 109–155, retrieved from https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-109publ155/pdf/PLAW-109publ155.pdf

[5] NASA. (2017). “New Report Assesses Status of Detecting Near-Earth Asteroids,” This summary references the full report. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/new-report-assesses-status-of-detecting-near-earth-asteroids

[6] Clark R. Chapman & David Morrison, “Impacts on the Earth by asteroids and comets: assessing the hazard,” Nature, Vol. 367, pages 33–40 (1994). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/367033a0

[7] Carly Casella, “NASA basically missed a huge asteroid that passed unnervingly close to earth,” Science Alert, 17 April 2018, retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/giant-football-field-size-asteroid-surprise-flyby-earth

[8] Elizabeth Howell, “Chelyabinsk meteor: a wake-up call for Earth,” Space, 9 January 2019, retrieved from https://www.space.com/33623-chelyabinsk-meteor-wake-up-call-for-earth.html

[9] Meghan Bartels, “It’s time to get serious about asteroid threats, NASA chief says,” 29 April 2019, retrieved from https://www.space.com/asteroid-threat-planetary-defense-nasa-chief.html

[10] Jeff Foust, “Scientists lobby NASA for additional planetary defense missions,” Space News, 29 April 2019, retrieved from https://spacenews.com/scientists-lobby-nasa-for-additional-planetary-defense-missions/

[11] Matt Williams, The next generation of exploration: the NEOCam mission,” Universe Today, 9 October 2015, retrieved from https://www.universetoday.com/122785/the-next-generation-of-exploration-the-neocam-mission/

[12] Jeff Foust, “Poll shows more public support for NASA science programs than human exploration,” Space News, 6 June 2018, retrieved from https://spacenews.com/poll-shows-more-public-support-for-nasa-science-programs-than-human-exploration/

[13] Roger Blandford, “Policing the (Cosmic) Neighborhood,” Space News, 15 September 2015, retrieved from https://spacenews.com/op-ed-policing-the-cosmic-neighborhood/

[14] U.S. Secretary of Defense & Director of National Intelligence joint publication, “National Security Space Strategy,” January 2011, retrieved from https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NSSS/National

SecuritySpaceStrategyUnclassifiedSummary_Jan2011.pdf

[15] Dave Deptula, “Yes to a U.S. space command but no to a separate space force,” Forbes, 10 April 2019, retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davedeptula/2019/04/10/u-s-space-command-yes-separate-u-s-space-force-no/#6a9c6e47e3e9

© 2019 Mark Armstrong

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