Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Task force to report on 'deep impact' asteroid threat
Posted: September 17, 2000

An artist's concept of a massive asteroid hitting the Earth. Photo: NASA
On January 4, 2000, after a four year campaign by Spaceguard UK and a concurrent political drive by Lembit Opik MP, the British government announced the establishment of a Task Force on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). The members are Dr. H H (Harry) Atkinson (Chairman), Professor David Williams and Sir Crispin Tickell. Their terms of reference were to confirm the nature of the impact hazard, identify current UK activities, and make recommendations on future action.

The Task Force has consulted with leading experts in the UK, Europe and the United States, and has investigated the magnitude of the hazard, projects currently underway around the world and the requirements for a comprehensive international programme to counter the threat of cometary and asteroidal impacts.

The Task Force presented its report to the minister responsible, Lord Sainsbury, via the British National Space Centre, in August, and it will be published on Monday, September 18.

The actuarial cost - the long term cost of doing nothing - associated with the impacts of 1 kilometre diameter objects, events expected at statistical intervals of 100,000 years, is 120 million per year. This sum only covers the value of lives lost; so the costs of property, heritage, commerce etc will substantially increase the figure. The sum that Spaceguard UK has recommended be spent by the UK on its contribution to the international Spaceguard programme amounts to less than 3% of this figure. Such a contributuin would involve the detection and follow-up of potentially hazardous objects, studies into the physical and dynamical properties of asteroids and comets and a public information service. An important aspect will be the study of small objects such as the one that devastated an area the size of central London in 1908.

The risk of asteroidal or cometary impacts substantially exceeds the limits of tolerability applied by the Health and Safety Executive to the nuclear power industry and the transport of hazardous goods.

Because the impact hazard is international in scope, so must be the solution. However, there are critical gaps in the current international (mainly US) system in the conduct of follow-up observations, the detection of smaller, but still hazardous objects and the education and informing of the public. It is in these fields that the UK could make the best contribution.

After discussions with the international NEO research community it is clear that a British programme designed to address the shortcomings in the current international system would place the UK at the forefront of global research into the impact hazard.

The British government's initiative has raised significant interest in the United States and Europe, and Spaceguard UK applauds the minister, Lord Sainsbury, on his timely decision to investigate the most serious natural hazard facing Great Britain. However, he is no doubt well aware that actions speak louder than words.