Testimony of Chairman Mark Udall, Hearing on Near-Earth Objects: Status of the Survey Program and Review of NASA's 2007 Report to Congress


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Good morning. I'd like to extend a welcome to our witnesses and in particular recognize Congressman Luis Fortuno's presence here with us today.

As many of you may recall, today's hearing on Near-Earth Objects was originally scheduled for October 11th, but we postponed it in the wake of Rep. Jo Ann Davis's untimely death. Thus, before we proceed any further, I'd like to express my appreciation to each of the witnesses for your willingness to accommodate that postponement and appear before us today.

Your testimony will be invaluable to us as we consider how best to proceed in getting a better understanding of the potential threats posed by Near-Earth Objects--NEOs [NEE-OHs], as well as options for dealing with them.

Today's hearing is the latest in a series that stretches back to the early 1990s. We have come along way since the late George Brown--former Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee--led the first efforts to focus congressional attention on the potential threat posed by Near Earth asteroids and comets. It has been a bipartisan effort over the intervening years, and a lot has been accomplished.

In that regard, I in particular want to salute the dedication of Mr. Rohrabacher in pushing for continued federal initiatives to detect, track, and catalog NEOs, as well as to examine ways to deflect them if necessary. He has been an effective catalyst for action, and I look forward to continuing to work with him on this issue.

As we will hear from our witnesses, much progress has been made in detecting and cataloging the largest NEOs over the last decade. However--as we will also hear--much more remains to be done.

In particular, we need to survey potentially hazardous asteroids that are smaller than the ones cataloged to date, but which could do significant damage if they impact or explode above the Earth's surface near populated areas. That is why Congress directed NASA to "plan, develop, and implement" a NEO survey program for objects as small as 140 meters in size in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.

As a result, I'm disappointed and concerned that NASA's report to Congress failed to provide a recommended option and budget plan for such a survey, as directed by the Act. In fact, the report says NASA has no plans to do anything beyond the current Spaceguard program at this time.

Equally troubling, one of the NASA witnesses will testify that "NASA would be pleased to implement a more aggressive NEO program if so directed by the President and Congress,"--with the implication that Congress has not yet done so. I think Sec. 321 of the NASA Authorization Act, which I quoted earlier, is unambiguous--Congress has in fact directed NASA to "plan, develop, and implement" such a program. And we would hope that the President would send over a NASA budget request that reflects that congressional direction.

Today, I want to focus on where we go from here. Given the lack of a clear plan in NASA's report to Congress, I hope that our witnesses today will be able provide some guidance to this Committee on the best and most cost-effective path forward for meeting the goal of surveying NEOs down to 140 meters in size.

In that regard, there are a number of related questions that need to be addressed. First, I'd like to hear from each of the witnesses about the planetary radar capabilities at Arecibo and Goldstone. How important are they to addressing the NEO task?

Second, how can we make the most effective use of capabilities being planned or developed by other federal agencies, such as LSST and Pan-STARRS, and what role should NASA play in supporting them? NASA's testimony indicates that it has begun providing funds to the Air Force's Pan-STARRS project "so that it will be capable of providing data on NEO detections..."

That's an interesting development, and it raises the question of whether NASA should also be providing funds to other facilities such as Arecibo and the proposed LSST project if doing so will materially contribute to meeting the NEO survey objectives in a responsible, cost-effective manner.

Third, I'd like to know if there are adjustments to either the timetable or scope of the NEO survey called out in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 that would make sense--either by allowing more cost-effective approaches on a slightly longer timetable or by focusing on just potentially hazardous objects rather than on all NEOs.

Fourth, surveying NEOs is just part of the task. If we find one that it is headed towards Earth, we will need to have good options for deflecting it. What priority should be given to developing deflection technologies versus NEO survey systems in the coming years?

Finally, the potential threat posed by Near-earth objects is not isolated to the United States. What contributions are other national and international bodies making to the effort? Should more be done?

Well, as you can see, we have a lot to consider today. Fortunately, we have a very distinguished set of witnesses to assist us in our oversight task. I again want to welcome all of you, and I look forward to your testimony.

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