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500,000 Near Earth Objects?

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • philw1776 September 30, 2008, 15:04

    Mixed feelings here. In theory the UN is the correct org to oversee the creation of the worldwide decision framework for action in such instances. However, the same UN historically has been slow to action in any substantive crisis to say the least. Hopefully a robust, effective framework of decision trees and action can be codified in advance such that when such a crisis arises, action is semi-automatic. Realisticly, we humans are not effective at laying out decision templates for never before experienced events. All considered, it’s the best option for the planet so let’s have the best minds participate and open up the issues to broad cross disciplinary review. Maybe this political process will be completed before another century turns.

  • Ron S September 30, 2008, 19:16

    “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.”

    This would more likely have the opposite effect if it is shown that none of those 500,000 will strike for a long, long time. The risk, perceived and real, changes with the acquisition of more data, and in this case the risk is more likely to decrease as indicated by the recent (geologically speaking) evidence of no impacts, or at least impacts that affected any people.

    It may seem counter-intuitive, but if the objective is political action in the near future we may be better off with less data.

  • Meaux September 30, 2008, 19:51

    Please forgive if I offend, but..

    The last place any rational decision making regarding this problem would be with the U.N. I’d suggest for our effort and money [does $5 billion seem apropriate?] we will receive a delayed report that is inconclusive with further suggestion for further study. That is the way, isn’t it?

    Better the resourses be directed to ESA or NASA, should we truly need insight and direction.


  • Darnell Clayton September 30, 2008, 23:30

    I would have to side with Phil on this. The UN is the LAST organization I would refer anything too, especially since their opinion changes according the political wind (one only needs to think of their refusal to call Darfur genocide to confirm this).

    Perhaps the west could work handle it by themselves (with Russia and China tagging along), although it would probably have to be a US led effort if you ask me.

  • dermot September 30, 2008, 23:42

    As the Earth has clearly failed to “clear its neighbourhood”, the first priority must be to adhere to the IAU’s new planetary definition and demote our world to “dwarf planet” status.

    Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

  • Adam October 2, 2008, 5:38

    The current argument has been going on since the 1970s and the solution remains the same – the only asteroid protection is to industrialise the lot of them ;-)

  • John Hunt October 7, 2008, 16:44

    It’s tough posting after two such witty comments!

    I personally think that we’re going to beat the danger. We recently have been able to identify the majority of the civilization-destroying NEOs and we’ll get nearly all of the remaining shortly.

    With time the not-yet-found NEOs will reduce in size (statistically) to the point where they will do significant but only regional destruction. At that point, all we need to do is to be able to have a week’s notice for evacuation of the area. If we were to be facing another Tunguska event then, considering the cost/benefit we’d probably not even try to deflect but just to evacuate.

    Somewhere along the line we’ll begin to detect NEOs that, in fact, are on a collision course. But for most of them we’ll have plenty of time (decades or more). We could launch a mission to perform a very tiny deflection or wait a number of years until our technology allows us to perform a larger deflection as they approaches us.

    Eventually detecting new sizeable NEOs will dwindle to a trickle. Then we’ll have a good handle on our specific risks and we’ll know the size and time of those that will hit us. We can then plan missions rationally.

    This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have at least stop-gap deflection plans ready to go. But I think that the priority should primary be on detection.