CCNet ESSAY, 18 April 2002


By Drake A. Mitchell, PlanetaryDefence@Netscape.Net

"The search strategy should evolve synergistically as knowledge of
the NEO population accrues."
-- Edward Bowell, Karri Muinonen, 1994, in "Hazards Due to
Comets & Asteroids"


Current efforts to detect potentially hazardous NEOs depend on ground-based
optical telescopes to sample regions of space, primarily cones extending
from the Earth towards the Main Belt. These efforts to find asteroids and
comets in the many orbits of concern rely on the fact that these NEOs appear
to these telescopes to be most brightly illuminated at solar-opposition from
the Earth, i.e. in the antisolar direction of the night sky. Thus a
searchlight-like zone slowly swings along with the Earth in its perennial
orbit of the Sun. This data-collection strategy has yielded an optimization
for search-cost and viable political compromise, in the form of the goal
proposed to and then mandated by the U.S. Congress, i.e. for NASA to detect
90% of NEOs 1 km and larger within the ten-year period ending in 2008. This
strategy, however, does not appear to be globally optimal when time
parameters, hazard metrics, true costs, best effort, and alternate
strategies are taken into account. We are the inheritors of bad news: God
apparently does play dice, terribly sorry about that; but the bad news
really must all be collected, and the sooner the better, chin up, chop-chop!

The best features of these current survey efforts have been twofold: their
inexpensive, highly-probable useful warning for the largest asteroidal
objects; and the consciousness-raising effects on the world population,
thanks to the more distinguished of the many discoveries. It is currently
estimated that nearly all "extinction-level" NEAs, those with H<15.5
(diameter >2-5km), have been detected [1] - hurrah! However, even with the
inclusion of the other known NEOs that are 1km and larger, a rather large
~82% of the risk from "global killers" remains [2]. Worse, according to the
results of the latest NEO population model of Morbidelli, Jedicke, and
Bottke, the existing program to arrive at the 2008 goal does indeed appear
to be doomed, and the best that can be achieved by then - even with an
enhanced LINEAR survey focused only on the most hazardous NEOs - would be
about 60-70% completion [3].

The beneficial detection feature of the current telescopic surveys degrades
rapidly for the vastly more numerous NEAs with diameters near and below the
poorly understood threshold for catastrophic global effects [4]. One of the
greatest liabilities of the current strategic regime is that known
indicators of greatest hazard potential have been so badly neglected that
valuable time and strategic focus have been lost. The underutilized leverage
of these indicators leaves Earth vulnerable to a tragic loss of warning for
the next several predestined NEO impactors, should these predictable and
avoidable impact events occur within the next few decades of greatest risk -
whether they are "global killers" or of a smaller size that could devastate
either civilization or truly Pythonesque "vast tracts of land."

So what are the prospects for better strategies? Also included in Morbidelli
et al's assessment, the proposed dual-mission NEO/Dark Matter 8m-class
Large-aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) familiar to CCNet, which
would reach 24th magnitude within 20-second exposures, could be expected to
be dramatically more effective than LINEAR [3], especially for smaller NEOs
(~90% of 300m NEOs in 10yrs), though probably not towards achieving the 2008
goal on time. Furthermore, despite the heroically artistic attempts to
justify this wondrous ground-based telescope by pointing out the
disadvantageous limits on integration times for smaller telescopes, and the
unprecedented telemetry bandwidth that would be required for a comparable
space-based telescope, these arguments appear to suffer from a conflation of
the two missions: Dark Matter science could benefit from the unique
capability on the ground, and Planetary Defence could indeed benefit from
the capacity, but it is not yet clear that the LSST would necessarily offer
performance superior to alternate NEO detection technology [5]. Indeed,
Morbidelli et al find that a dedicated satellite near Mercury's orbit could
be more effective towards the standing 2008 goal, although as is shown in
this essay it may be possible to trump even this option.

SwRI's SWUIS ultraviolet telescope, with 30 times the field-of-view of the
Hubble, demonstrated utility for observing targets inside the Earth's orbit:
it delivered 400,000 post-perihelion images of Comet Hale-Bopp onboard
STS-85 (Aug97) when the comet was lost to other telescopes because of the
Sun, and it searched for Vulcanoid asteroids within Mercury's orbit onboard
STS-93 (Jul99) [6]. A third flight was planned for the side-hatch
window-mounted telescope's spectrograph. Deployment onboard the ISS is an
unverified theoretical possibility that could both educate and occupy
forthcoming celebrity space tourists in need of baby-sitting. This could
also raise consciousness on the ground about the urgency of space-based
detection of "blind spot" NEOs, and perhaps even increase sales of astronomy
paraphernalia to the swelling ranks of amateurs.

More promising than SWUIS, Canada's proposed Near-Earth Space Surveillance
(NESS) dual-mission micro-satellite builds on its Microvariability and
Oscillations of Stars (MOST) imaging telescope for stellar photometry, the
latter due for launch in 2003. The NESS telescope would reach 19th magnitude
within 600- second tracking exposures in a 50kg package in "dawn/dusk"
sun-synchronous orbit, detecting the neglected asteroids and comets that are
problematic from the ground due to the Earth's several blind-spots [22] to
within Mercury's 0.387 AU orbit (20-45 degrees to the Sun) and also
collecting follow-up astrometry, and possibly polarimetry and eight-color
photometry [7]. Additionally it will demonstrate the tracking of higher
Earth-orbit satellites for NORAD, all for ~$5M with shared launch, a
possible historically unprecedented price-point in the aerospace industry.

Even more promising is the work by Tedesco, Muinonen, Price and Egan that
NESS is based on, which showed from the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX)
that Earth-orbit observations to 8th magnitude in the infra-red could detect
500m NEOs close to the Sun (25 degrees) out to 2 AU, which if performed just
twice a month could find 90% of >500m Atens in 5 years [8]. This standard is
better than the currently proposed performance of the Bepi-Columbo optical
telescope, which would reach 18th magnitude within ingenious 48-second
orbital-synchronous charge-shifted exposures while in polar-orbit about
Mercury, aiming to detect >80% of Atens above an unspecified size-limit.
Images analyzed onboard would generate point-source telemetry, leaving
moving-object detection of potential NEOs to ground-based processing. This
could start within 6 years after the proposed launch in 2009, assuming that
it takes as long to get there as the currently NEO-useless MESSENGER (two
launch windows in 2004, ~5 year low-delta-V transit), and that the telescope
is finally included in the reference payload for the next iteration of
design exercises [9].

To summarize, LSST, SWUIS, NESS, MSX, and Bepi-Columbo each represent
progress in varying degrees. They are all trailblazing increases in
telescopic capacity and flexibility. They demonstrate the crucial advantages
of space-based NEO observation and/or the ability to target troublesome
subpopulations of the NEO hazard. They are all therefore consistent with a
greater application of the indicators of greatest NEO hazard potential.
However, none of them represents an attempt at maximal application of these
indicators, and as such all of them are products of a suboptimal strategic
regime. Therefore, while a decision to reconfigure and enhance the MESSENGER
mission is imperative in the current paradigm, it could also be a suboptimal
deployment of resources in a new one.


One key parameter that indicates maximal hazard potential, i.e. a
first-order component of NEO threat, is the Minimum Orbit Intersection
Distance, MOID, with the Earth. The Earth-MOID of NEOs is an easily
determined, relatively stable parameter that changes as an object's orbit
changes. It can be initially computed from a one-week arc of optical
observations. While this can be done more accurately and one to three orders
of magnitude faster, currently available radar assets offer a range limited
to Lunar Distances.

Abrupt changes in MOID due to close approaches with massive bodies are a
fairly rare eventuality on human timescales for the vast majority of NEAs.
The Spaceguard Survey Report assumed that most MOIDs will not change by more
than a flat 10 Lunar Distances over a few centuries [10]. Still, 1953 EA
Quetzalcoatl's perihelion is reported to have changed by "a whopping 7%" in
only 60 years due to Jupiter [11], which substantially perturbs NEOs that
approach within a 1 AU radius and also has several powerful resonances by
itself and in conjunction with 3+body interactions with Mars and Saturn.
This Quetzalcoatl data point is even more unnerving when it is compared to
the current analytical understanding of this Alinda-class of NEOs in rapidly
changing orbits. While "synergic resonances" and "supercrossers" are
mentioned in Milani's lucid discussion of Alindas, the time-scales examined
in typical solar system integrator experiments are almost geologic, and in
the face of decadal-scale transitions share the same consternation that
geology suffered in the previous century with regard to the severity of the
impact hazard: the shortest time-scale indicated for "rapid" transitions is
"a few hundred years", and typically ten millennia [12]. The heavens run
amok, damn truly sorry.

CCNet participants may recall that the Minor Planet Center's Brian Marsden
examined in depth the MOID variations of 1997 X-Ray Foxtrot 11 in his
classic discourse [13]. Romania's Berinde presents an analysis of the MOID
of 1999 Alpha November 10 with his underappreciated SolSyIn integrator
software package (far more interesting than a SETI screen-saver for the PC).
Assuming no Earth eccentricity, he shows how the MOID may decrease by an
order of magnitude to less than 1 LD within 500 years, while its semimajor
axis decreases by more than 1% in the same period, about half of that by
2050 [14]. He also indicates the object's Lyapunov time of 20-30 years,
which means that its motions past a few centuries into the future will
remain behind a quasiperpetual fog of chaos, rendering it and similar NEOs a
rather interesting bunch; apparently we are somewhat lucky with 1950
District Attorney's 2880 A.D. horizon.

Pisa's Bonnano presents an analytical treatment of stealthy MOID variances
and applies it to specific NEOs [15]. Ross is building on the truly
revolutionary work on manifolds by a Caltech/JPL astrodynamics team, by
aiming to investigate the instabilities of typical NEO resonances within the
context of an almost surreal  labyrinth of enormous mobile tunnels, which
permeate the solar system in a gargantuan network that has nodes at the
Lagrangian points of massive bodies [16]. Paffenroth's open ODE software on
Sourceforge [17] demonstrates how this mathematical paradigm is on the verge
of revolutionizing at least four decades of work on NEOs, as it is already
doing with libration-point space mission design.

Ross will be presenting at the University of Warwick's year-long Geometric
Mechanics Symposium while storming the UK and Germany for the next month
[18]. Not to be outdone, a celestial mechanics group at the University of
Vienna has published investigations on orbital resonances in an outstanding
series of books [19], and even a NATO conference recognized the importance
of relativistic effects in Marchal's investigation of Einstein's General
Relativity applied directly to the context of NEOs (recall Mercury's
precession) [20]. Also noteworthy is the CELMEC series of European
conferences [21].

At Los Alamos Richard Feynman is said to have described Hans Bethe as a
battleship at full steam. Some of the most impressive battleships were known
as Dreadnoughts, and we hope that our world's scholars can rise to such a
standard, converging, nay aligning, into an unprecedented astrodynamical
armada, with artillery pointed in the right directions. Given the pathetic
straits of American academia in the last few decades, we can perhaps hope
for an increase in scholarships "across the pond" and elsewhere (just ask
Christopher J. Lucas, "Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in
America"; for the hardcore disbelievers, dig out an old copy of Ernest
Boyer's "Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate", which
spoon-feeds the ABC's for PhDs and other typical victims of stove-pipe


MOIDs and manifolds represent a potential strategic "end run" around many
difficult obstacles. This is true in spite of the variations in MOID over
decades and centuries to which NEOs are generally subject, and the
computationally intensive manifold algorithms. Bamberga, in the darkest,
low-albedo C-class of carbonaceous chondrites, has an albedo of less than
0.05. Also, NEOs in various zones can be badly illuminated for ground-based
observations due to poor angles of solar phase or elongation. Thus low
albedos and poor illumination merely compound the difficulties with NEOs in
orbits with higher angles of inclination and/or greater osculating distances
from the Earth. Then we must factor in the many blind spots [22], which also
include a lunar zone and a region of galactic latitudes that provides
background obscuration due to the high stellar density of our home, the
Milky Way [23], which may compound the well-known blind-spot for objects
with low apparent motion, perhaps especially for the fraction of NECs that
might be KBOs. Additionally, ~16% of NEA's are binary/pairs [24], and
perhaps ~50% could be rubble-piles [25], both of which are difficult to
detect and even more problematic for defencive strategies. Not to be
discounted are the intolerably long completion times of ground-based
surveys, which will take decades to get near 99.99% for the "global killers"
and 99.9999% for the ~300m "continent busters" even with the LSST, and the
already painful bottlenecks from the increasing surge in NEO detections. In
spite of this medusan heap of doo-doo, the only potentially hazardous NEOs
are the ones with low MOIDs now and in the future.

A low value for Earth-MOID is necessary but not sufficient for high hazard
potential, because some NEOs are in protective resonances, e.g. orbits in
Kozai secular or Toro mean-motion resonances [26], even if these resonances
are subject to variability and instability. A long time ago, about half of
known PHAs were found to be in these "presonances" [27]. Therefore a
strategy designed to focus on the detection of NEOs with only the lowest
values of Earth-MOID would efficiently eradicate the vast majority of the
current risk exposure that derives from NEAs. Such a strategy could
potentially perform much faster than any of the existing or currently
proposed schemes of ground-based or space-based telescopes, with a resulting
benefit that likewise would not substantially erode for many decades if not
centuries. In the parlance of the old Admiralty, back when "shipshape" meant
something, it may be time to "change tack."

What this species of new search strategy would mean in practice is a
short-duration intense-coverage methodology for sampling the relatively
minuscule region of space that is determined by a thin torus surrounding the
Earth's orbit. The radius of this torus around the Earth's orbit could be
0.05 AU, the present distance for designating an NEA as a Potentially
Hazardous Asteroid (PHA), or larger, or smaller. Allowing for Earth's 0.0167
orbital eccentricity, an effective lower-limit for the radius of a perfect
torus would be about 0.0134 AU. But this is an arbitrary standard; in
astrodynamical practice, a toroidal region that follows the actual curve of
Earth's orbit would be substantially equivalent. The main point is that
instead of flailing after widely uncooperative targets with ever-more
powerful artillery within the enormous spherical volume inside Jupiter's
orbit, say ~600 cubic AU's, we focus instead on say the PHA-radius torus,
which has a neat volume of 0.05 cubic AU. This gives us a volumetric
leverage factor of at least 10,000. But does this stick in practice?

According to the most recent estimates, about 1% of NEOs have an MOID
smaller than 1 LD, 0.00256 AU; this would amount to 245 of the newly
estimated 24,500 NEOs larger than H<22 (diameter >110-240m), of which about
6 are estimated to have an MOID smaller than the Earth's radius [28]. True,
this lower estimate of smaller NEOs is news in itself, and good news at
that. However, we must conservatively presume that these six statistically
predestined impactors are not in presonances, and that they do not have
properties favorable for their detection, e.g. could be highly-inclined
long-period under-the-radar 900m, 450m, or 275m carbonaceous Alindas that
approach from the dayside Southern Hemisphere in effortless synchrony with
the annual seasons of monsoons, typhoons, Sydney hail, McMurdo blizzards, or
increased solar flares in a fashion reminiscent of the Coral Sea in WWII
[29]. Regarding cycles of sun spots, solar flares, and pulsating expansions
of the atmosphere, note that these appear to correlate with a variable ~5%
lag in Jupiter's primarily Saturn-modulated perihelion every ~11.86 years
(Jupiter's eccentricity is almost three times the Earth's), which should be
verifiable in Earth climatological data [30]; we dare current global warming
scientists to quantify their components of variance that are

We should also consider the implication that this "hexapocalypse" may only
be a starting lineup that rotates every 50-year inning in an ubermatch of
cosmic cricket. Why? Not just due to MOID-drift, but also because contrary
to some unfathomable "professional" opinions, there has been no announcement
of an even temporary suspension of Murphy's Law; isn't it completely
irresponsible to assume that the hexapocalyptic roster of PHAs doesn't need
to be vetted yesterday?

The trespassing traversals of virtually all of the most threatening NEAs,
and even some SPCs, all with an MOID within our maximally hazardous toroid
('hazmaroid'?), could in principle be detected within the governing upper
limit of one-half of Jupiter's orbital period, nominally 6 years, a
dramatically short, very reasonable duration. In other words, all of these
most-hazardous low-MOID NEAs have been slipping across the borders of
Earth's Donut of Danger mostly undetected at least once every 6 years, just
waiting to eat all our future lunches. About 40% of NEOs have orbital
periods less than 2 years, 65% <3  yrs, and 88% <4 yrs [31]. Therefore it
appears that a donut-based strategy has highly attractive features, but
again, does it stick? Consider as well another question: which would you
rather have, 70% of all NEAs >1km by 2008, or 90% of all the hazardous NEAs
>100m by 2008 and 99% by 2010? Or is this a false choice, in that the
synergy of both options may be economically justified?


A sampling methodology based on this strategy could be implemented quickly
and cheaply with relatively short-lived space-based technology that would
benefit from a mass-production economy of scale. The total cost of such a
program, including microsatellites, launches, and operations, could easily
be only a few percent of the total cumulative cost over just the next
century of the annualized economic damage represented by the total exposure
to the NEO hazard, which "century cost" is currently estimated to be roughly
$150B [4]. Almost any sizeable endeavor requires a substantial up-front
investment, and in the case of the NEO hazard the returns should generally
last the millennium. Virtually irrelevant by any rational measure of other
large government programs or largely underestimated government waste, is the
cost for proof-of-concept missions like NESS, a veritable hazard-focused
drop in the Hubble barrel of luxury.

What is sorely needed is a practicing economist to build upon the partial
accounting and to quantify the comparative hazard analysis (nuclear safety
standards) that was presented in the United Kingdom's NEO Task Force Report
of 2000. This observer nominates Molly Macauley, senior fellow and "space
economist" at WDC's Resources for the Future, to whip off some simple
figures of merit for the field [32].

Inexpensive, "disposable" small satellite technology is already in hand, and
merely needs to be deployed as a "necklaced perimeter tripwire" somewhat
inside the Earth's orbit, with a sufficient number of units in overlapping
ranges to achieve the desired 6-years of quasi-simultaneous coverage all
along the Earth's orbit(because the drift rates are relatively small,
coverage could be phased in with minor penalty). 10 identical satellites
would each have to observe a ~36-degree tube-segment of the Maximally
Hazardous Torus, at least 0.628 AU in width. Alternatively, 100 identical
smaller satellites would each only have to observe a ~3.6-degree
tube-segment, at least 0.0628 AU in width, and could do so from an orbit
closer to the Earth's, an important improvement for minimizing delta-V
requirements. The optimal number of satellites is a somewhat complex
function of the robust semiconductor sensor technologies, economies of
scale, novel engineering design solutions (e.g. a superior methodology for
post-detection follow-up observations, and a capacity for a wide
distribution of NEO angular rates of motion), and the minimum size object to
be detected. A potential bonus solution is the possibility of detecting the
toroidal 1% of low-MOID small iron NEAs, which are hazardous below 20m in
diameter [33] ; just consider the implications of Tedesco et al's results,
which are much better than older non-IR estimates of the distribution of
detectable range by NEO size (0.05 albedo): 125m within  0.25 AU at VM=22
[34], 100m within 0.1 AU at VM=18 [35], and 10m within 0.01 AU at VM=20

Residual hazard potentials, e.g. second-order components of the NEO threat
deriving from perturbations from close-approaches with planets and minor
planets, nongravitational perturbations (outgassing, Yarkovsky, MHD),
relativistic effects, resonance transitions, synergic resonances,
supercrossers, collisional and tidal-disruption fragmentation events,
periodicities in the NEO flux, and the inherent limits on forecasting
various orbits far into the future due to the mathematically chaotic nature
of the orbits in our solar system (Wisdom & Sussman [37]), can all be
addressed by the careful monitoring of NEOs in categories with well-defined

The proposed strategic application could offer additional continuing benefit
if the effective lifetime of even a few of the deployed satellites was
greater than the nominal span of 6 years, e.g. for comet detection [22] and
preliminary NEO recons. Nevertheless, a revolutionary strategy for the
detection of the remaining poorly-determined NEO threat-fraction represented
by the LPCs continues to represent a significant challenge [38], and remains
in the domain of Sir Clarke's original Excalibur proposal [39], perhaps with
an apo-ecliptic Kuiper-belt variation that could still be Sol-disk mediated.
For the uninitiated, it may serve to recall the standard specified by Niven
and Pournelle in "The Mote in God's Eye": worthy civilizations might be the
ones that can rake up the debris in their front yard, the remains of the
ancient solar hurricane that was the birth of their home.


MOIDs and manifold-based algorithms constitute a new paradigm that offers an
opportunity of potential strategic transcendence; Planetary Defence may be
able to rise above the technical complications plaguing current efforts.
Strategic applications of this new "toroidal" paradigm appear to meet
practical tests and to offer compelling performance metrics. An application
is specified that is basically the difference between calling for artillery
fire on very wide-ranging targets, and having perfectly placed snipers; just
ask any United States Marine Corps Force Recon sniper [40]. Alternatively,
this application can be viewed as laying a sparse, cheap, and disposable
line of high-performance "space buoys" along the large circle that is the
path of the Earth in her perpetual orbit about the Sun.

Upon brief historical study, it is amazing how bureaucracies can melt like
butter upon such events as the signing of Presidential Executive Orders
[41]. What is key is verifying and developing a proposal such as has been
outlined here, to the point that it meets the approval of ranking officers
exemplified by General Worden. The NEO gauntlet may now primarily be
political, and infinitely easier to run in 2002 than it was before 1998; the
end of considerable interfactional strife is within reach, if the bug-a-boo
spectre haunting space-based NEO activities can be blown away.

Time appears to be ample for an interdisciplinary team to coalesce before
the upcoming conferences in the Fall. From green-light, no substantive
reasons are seen by this observer to preclude first launch within 12 months
of RDT&E, provided that a decent Quality Assurance program is included from
incept date, perhaps 01Jan03. Any weaker goal would be disgraceful to our
species; we may yet deserve a Darwinian verdict, Nature's shrug.

[1] Bottke, Morbidelli, Jedicke, Petit, Levison, Michel, Metcalfe, "Debiased
Orbital and Absolute Magnitude Distribution of the Near-Earth Objects" p.38
[2] Morbidelli et al, November 2001: "We estimate that the Earth should
undergo a 1000 megatons collision every 64,000 years. The NEOs discovered so
far carry only 18% of this collision probability."
Tedesco, E. F., Muinonen, Karri, Price, S. D.: Space-based infrared
near-Earth asteroid survey simulation. Planetary and space science 48
(2000): p. 801-816
[16] "Potential Earth-impacting asteroids may utilize the dynamical channels
as a pathway to Earth from nearby, seemingly harmless heliocentric orbits
which are in resonance with the Earth. The same dynamics which allows us to
construct libration point space missions such as the Genesis Discovery
Mission, which is on a natural Earth collision orbit, is also the dynamics
that could bring unexpected Earth impactors." p.23
[27] In 1994 about half of known PHA's were in resonances; Gehrels et al,
"Hazards due to Comets & Asteroids", p. 179.
[28] Op cit, Bottke et al, p.41.
[31] As of 05Apr02, out of 1,841 known NEAs, better than 99.5% have orbital
periods of less than 6 years. This is due to Jupiter's powerful 2:1
resonance. Only 9 known NEAs have orbital periods greater than 6 years, and
all of these are less than 9 years. Of the 28 known NECs, 10 SPCs (36%) have
orbital periods less than 6 years, 18 (64%) less than 12 years.
N.B.: the population of known NEOs suffers from several flavors of bias.
See "NEOs; Rapporteur", p.15 in:
[34] Gehrels et al, "Hazards due to Comets & Asteroids", p. 157.
[37]"Chaotic Evolution of the Solar System,'' Gerald Jay Sussman and Jack
Science, 257, 3 July 1992
[40] Perhaps John "Goldi-Locks" Bartlett, USMC (Ret.), Gulf War Veteran,
who was at the very tip of "the tip of the spear."

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