In an attempt to explain the failures, address the uncertainties in the existing meteoroid models, take advantage of data gathered over the past 40 years, and gather new data, NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance and NASA Headquarters funded the establishment of the MEO at MSFC in 2004, with a budget of about $650,000 per year. MEO was created in part as a response to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which noted that NASA lacked means of monitoring meteoroid activity for post-event assessments and that a central office for meteoroid work was required within NASA to reverse loss of expertise and knowledge on the topic within the agency. The MEO is NASA’s technical lead for defining the meteoroid environment using radar and optical measurements, performing data analysis, and developing models that can be used together with test results from the HITF at JSC.
In the past 6 years, the MEO has improved models describing meteor streams and storms and regularly provides forecasts. It monitors meteor activity using a radar located in Ontario, Canada, and a network of all-sky optical cameras. The optical camera images are available online, where a near-instant analysis is performed to determine the orbit of each meteor observed. Although much new information has been obtained—enough to identify necessary updates to existing models—much more can and should be done to safely achieve NASA’s strategic goal to “extend and sustain human activities across the solar system.”32
Finding: NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris programs have used their resources responsibly and have played an increasingly essential role in protecting the safety of both crewed and uncrewed space operations.
Finding: The increasing responsibilities given to NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris programs have put pressure on the programs’ allotted resources. The increasing scope of work, and the complexity and severity of the debris and meteoroid environment, are outpacing in real dollars the decreasing funding levels of NASA’s MMOD programs.
The programs and activities described above represent NASA’s primary efforts in MMOD research. During the course of its study, the committee became aware of smaller research projects occurring at individual centers (for instance, MMOD support for Project Orion at NASA Ames Research Center33 or, also at NASA Ames, research to improve the accuracy of debris orbit prediction34). The committee did not have the time or resources to conduct a thorough review of these smaller efforts.
32 NASA, 2011 NASA Strategic Plan, Washington, D.C., February 14, 2011, p. ii, available at http://www.americaspace.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/NASA_Strategic_Vision_2011.pdf, accessed July 6, 2011.
33 J. Vander Kam, “NASA Ames Micro-Meteoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD) Support for Project Orion,” presentation to the Committee for the Assessment of NASA’s Orbital Debris Programs, April 22, 2011, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.
34 W. Marshall, “Debris Efforts at Ames,” presentation to the National Research Council Committee for the Assessment of NASA’s Orbital Debris Programs, April 22, 2011, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.