The Politics and Promise of Near-Earth Asteroids


The Politics and Promise of Near-Earth Asteroids


Mark V. Sykes

About the Speaker

Mark V. Sykes is CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the exploration of the solar system for more than 40 years. Mark began his science career as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, studying photometric and polarimetric lightcurves of eclipsing stellar binaries - particularly the first black-hole system, Cygnus X-1. As a graduate student at the University of Oregon, he discovered cometary dust trails using data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite and engaged in ground-based studies of asteroids in the thermal infrared.

He is a Co-Investigator on the NASA Daw mission to Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt. Sykes chairs the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group, which provides science input for the planning and prioritization of the exploration of asteroids and comets. He is also a member of the Board of Advisors of Planetary Resources, Inc., a for-profit corporation planning to mine asteroids. He is also involved with PSI's Atsa Suborbital Observatory, and plans to travel into space to make telescopic observations using the XCOR Lynx as a platform.



Near-Earth objects are viewed primarily as hazards. One is noted for killing the dinosaurs. This February, another much smaller object exploded over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk in Russia, injuring more than 1500 people. The perceived threat drove Congress in 1998 to direct NASA to find 90% of asteroids having diameters exceeding 1 km. Recognizing the potential damage from another Siberian airburst over Tunguska in 1908, Congress modified their mandate in 2005 to include objects down to 140 meters in diameter.

However, asteroids represent more than just threats, they represent the potential to expand human presence and economy beyond Earth. The Obama administration has committed to sending a crewed mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and it is planning to propose that Congress allocate $100M in 2014 to begin planning for a mission to return a 5 meter object to Earth orbit. A non-profit company says it will raise hundreds of millions in donations to survey NEOs to reduce the hazard threat. Private companies have started up with the goal of mining asteroids and turning a profit. Is this the Dawn of a new space age? Or business as usual?


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Publication Date



Grand Forks, ND

The Politics and Promise of Near-Earth Asteroids