Monday, April 21, 2014

Asteroid Impacts on Earth Obstructed by Red Tape

Artist's view of last year’s fireball explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia – termed a "superbolide" event.

Credit: Don Davis

Red tape is making it tougher for researchers to study and characterize asteroid strikes on Earth, which are apparently more common than previously thought, experts say.

The bureaucratic snafu affects the use of U.S. government space assets that help scientists study "airbursts" like the meteor that exploded without warning over Russia last year.

At issue is the ability to combine space data with outputs from a global network of seismic, infrasound and hydroacoustic sensors that have been deployed worldwide to provide treaty verification for a nuclear test ban.

This network is the International Monitoring System (IMS) overseen by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

In recent years, the IMS has detected shock waves from many airbursts, providing further evidence that asteroid impacts are more frequent than previously thought.

Ideally, matching observations from spacecraft with measurements from CTBTOs infrasound detectors would give scientists more of a heads-up on what's raining down on Earth, experts say.

Memorandum of agreement
Last year, the Air Force Space Command signed a memorandum of agreement with NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

That document, inked on Jan. 18, 2013, spelled out specifics for the public release of meteor data from sources such as high-flying, secretive U.S. government space sensors.

With that agreement in place, NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program started receiving information on fireball events based on analysis of data collected by U.S. government sensors.

Details of atmospheric meteor explosions, as recorded by U.S. military spacecraft sensors, were posted on a publicly accessible NASA website run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

In fact, the military-civil cooperation was spurred by the details of the February 2013 fireball explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, termed a "superbolide" event.

The website postings are designed to assist the scientific community's investigation of bolides, or exceptionally bright fireballs.

However, multiple scientists noted that the JPL website had not been updated recently. That presumably meant that there was some sort of delay, as some fairly big events were detected by infrasound in the last year.

"Because of budget and personnel reductions on our military partner, they ran into workforce issues to accomplish this task," said Lindley Johnson, NEO program executive within the Planetary Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

"We are already in discussions with them about what it will take to get it restarted," Johnson told reporters

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