Are we going to detect 500,000 near-Earth objects in the next fifteen years as technologies improve? The Association of Space Explorers thinks so, and lays out its view of the danger we face from asteroids and other near-Earth objects in a new report. I’m looking through an executive summary of Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response right now, not long after the release of the report’s results late last week. The ASE hopes to involve the United Nations in a global information network that would improve our existing capabilities at finding and tracking dangerous objects. It would also set up an oversight group to advise the Security Council about the risks and the best ways to deflect potential impactors.

Why the UN? Because it’s a global problem. The report points out that trying to deflect an incoming asteroid would create questions of authorization, liability and financial action that inevitably involve the international community. Citing its belief that existing technology can divert the ‘vast majority’ of hazardous objects, the ASE report notes that we’ll need an effective decision-making mechanism that can create swift action between nations. Thus its call for an intergovernmental NEO Threat Oversight group within the UN to develop the necessary guidelines that would lead to any deflection attempt.

From the report:

The Association of Space Explorers and its Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation are confident that with a program for concerted action in place, the international community can prevent most future impacts. The Association of Space Explorers and its Panel are equally certain that if the international community fails to adopt an effective, internationally recognized program, society will likely suffer the effects of some future cosmic disaster—intensified by the knowledge that loss of life, economic devastation, and long-lasting societal disruption could have been prevented. Scientific knowledge and existing international institutions, if harnessed today, offer society the means to avoid such a catastrophe. We cannot afford to shirk that responsibility.

Let’s assume that the ASE’s speculation about the discovery of hundreds of thousands of new asteroids plays out. If that occurs, we’re going to be finding more and more objects whose orbits need particular study, some of them doubtless raising alarms about the possibility of a strike on Earth. The following questions then become critical:

Who will issue warnings to evacuate the predicted impact point? Based on what information? How will the public react if there are conflicting predictions? What deflection technologies exist and who approves their use? Who accepts liability if an asteroid deflection doesn’t work? Who decides that it’s acceptable to temporarily increase the risk to some people in order to eliminate it for everyone? What is the biggest asteroid we can safely decide to ignore? Who pays to deflect an asteroid? What does such a mission cost? Who should deflect an incoming asteroid? Will two space agencies decide to take conflicting actions?

The scenario is in many ways dismaying, with nations and agencies bickering about how to respond to a potential threat while precious time is lost. This is why the primary thrust of the ASE report is toward the creation of a solid decision-making system that should be in place before the need ever arises. The method should recall the preparation that goes into a manned spaceflight, when system failures are analyzed well in advance so that the crew will know what actions to take in the event of emergency. The last thing a spacecraft crew needs is surprise, as the Apollo 13 flight demonstrated all too well.

The identification of 500,000 near-Earth objects in the next fifteen years could elevate public awareness of the asteroid threat to the point where policy-makers take the needed actions. We can all hope so, and hope that an NEO Threat Oversight group of the kind the report recommends will also include a mission group to analyze options for deflection. We’ll see more in the full report, to be released after it is introduced to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) in Vienna early next year.