Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold Says NASA ‘Afraid’ To Admit NEOWISE’s Mistakes About Asteroids

Recently, NASA announced an initiative that serves as a contingency plan and a means for America to improve its preparedness in the event of an asteroid strike. However, not everyone is impressed by the space agency’s handling of potential asteroid, or near-Earth object (NEO) impacts, and that includes former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, who spoke to The Guardian earlier this week to criticize NASA and its established Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission.

In his interview with The Guardian, Myhrvold explained that his “main beef” with NEOWISE is how NASA has analyzed the data gathered by the mission over the past four years. He said that the agency made the wrong choices of statistical methods, further accusing NEOWISE team members of “[covering things] up” by not publishing information that might have been helpful to anyone who wants to replicate the results. In other words, he believes NASA had both over- and underestimated the size of asteroids in recent years, resulting in findings that are “kind of a mess,” which is something the world can ill afford due to the potentially catastrophic nature of asteroid strikes.

“The effect changes depending on the size of the asteroid and what it’s made of. The studies were advertised as being accurate to plus or minus 10 percent. In fact, it is more like 30-35 percent. That’s if you look overall. If you look at specific subsets some of them are off by more than 100 percent.”

As explained by NASA in a news release earlier this year, the NEOWISE mission was restarted in December 2013, four years after its original launch and two years after it was temporarily placed in hibernation. As of April, the mission had detected a total of 29,375 objects over four years, including 788 asteroids and 136 comets. Ten of these objects were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), due to their larger size and their proximity to Earth’s orbit.

Talking about NASA’s decision to stand by the findings of NEOWISE despite the perceived inaccuracies, Nathan Myhrvold told The Guardian that the space agency is “afraid” to admit that it made mistakes, now that a 33-page paper he wrote criticizing NASA’s techniques has been peer reviewed. He believes that the mission’s results have to be subjected to an independent investigation to verify their accuracy once and for all.

“People have suggested to me the reason NASA doesn’t want to admit that anything is wrong with the data is that they’re afraid it would hurt the chances of Neocam, an approximately $500 million telescope to find asteroids that might hit Earth,” Myhrvold commented.

Separate from its NEOWISE project, NASA teamed up with other federal agencies for an initiative known as the Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earthbound Near-Earth Objects, or DAMIEN. According to Science Alert, the action plan is based on a list of goals created by NASA in 2016 and is designed to improve its accuracy in detecting asteroids and to help the United States become more prepared in dealing with asteroid strikes.