By Joel Achenbach — NASA has an advisory committee of scientists who specialize in small objects in the solar system, and, after a meeting in July, the group produced a blistering draft report saying that NASA needed to do a lot more homework. For example, the report said, "Such small objects may be rapidly rotating rubble piles, which could be hazardous to spacecraft during interactions with the target object."
NASA used a small asteroid, dubbed 2009BD, as the hypothetical target in two feasibility studies, but that particular rock needs further scrutiny before anyone can say for sure that it would meet the requirements of the mission. It could be too small, a pipsqueak. It might not even be a natural object. The worst-case scenario would be the capture of something with Russian writing on the side.
So where does this leave the asteroid mission, and NASA? Back in a familiar place: with a plan that doesn't seem rock-solid.
NASA missions historically have received bipartisan support. Not this time. House Republicans have treated the asteroid initiative — which would cost $105 million in 2014 under the president's budget request — as though it were an effigy of the Obama administration. In July, House Republicans on the Science Committee passed a bill that would take the unusual step of prohibiting NASA from proceeding with the asteroid mission without first supplying Congress with more information about it.
Senate Democrats are protecting the initiative for now.
Many times in recent months, NASA officials have cited planetary defense as a reason for the mission. But the target rock would not be nearly big enough to pose a threat to human civilization should it hit the Earth, and the methods used in the mission would not be applicable to the deflection of a large asteroid. In recent days, Bolden has backed off the save-the-Earth rhetoric.