Asteroids that might threaten Earth could pose a challenge beyond the obvious, if nations can't get their act together and figure out a unified plan of action.
There are currently no known space rocks on a collision course with Earth, but with ample evidence for past impacts, researchers say it's only a matter of time before one is found to be heading our way.
A swarm of political and legal issues bedevil any national or international response, whether it's responsibility for collateral damage from deflected asteroids or the possible outcry if one country decides to unilaterally nuke the space threat.
"The word 'unorganized' is spot on here," said Frans von der Dunk, space law expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "There is no such thing as even a platform for some level of coordination regarding possible responses and, to be honest, some quarters very much would like it to remain that way."
Legal experts discussed such problems last week at a University of Nebraska-Lincoln conference titled "Near-Earth Objects: Risks, Responses and Opportunities-Legal Aspects." Their talks underscored how underprepared the international community is to deal with policy and legal fallout from a potential asteroid threat.
Saving Earth vs. scaring everybody
Many scientists have already brainstormed a variety of ways to deflect or destroy rogue asteroids, such as sending out spacecraft to nudge the space rock aside for a near-miss or simply blasting it apart. But some solutions may have different levels of appeal for various nations, especially when they involve launching potential weapons into space.
For instance, international concern surrounded a U.S. shoot-down of a failing satellite last year, not to mention China's 2007 knockout of its own aging weather satellite with a ballistic missile. Both cases raised worries about the demonstration of potential missile defense systems or satellite-killer technologies.
"The international political reactions to the U.S. shooting down of its own satellites a year ago to prevent presumably dangerous and toxic fuel from reaching Earth only foreshadows what would happen if the U.S. would detonate nukes claiming to destroy an incoming asteroid," von der Dunk told SPACE.com.
Other scenarios could highlight the question of international unity. A United Nations Security Council decision on a certain asteroid response would likely shield participating nations against any liabilities for collateral damage from a failed deflection or interception attempt, if the past serves as any guide the U.S. and other coalition nations that kicked Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 were not held responsible for damages to Iraq under Security Council mandate.
Depends on who'll get hit
Von der Dunk also posed the tricky question of what the international response would be if a smaller asteroid was headed for North Korea. The politically isolated nation attempted but failed to put a communications satellite into orbit in April, and would almost certainly require assistance from the U.S., Russia or China to deal with an asteroid threat.
Better international cooperation might also help in figuring out how to assess asteroid threats and release potentially scary info to the public.
"We have already seen scares raised by scientists ready to put out alarms out there, when either their data (fortunately quickly!) turned out to be considerably flawed, or later data allowed for a much more precise estimate of the risk which turned out to be much lower," von der Dunk said.
He pointed to the case of the Apophis asteroid, in which astronomers initially gave a one-in-37 chance of it striking Earth in 2029, but later refined chances of collision to almost zero.
Experts at the conference agreed to keep pushing forward on legal issues, as well as focus on general education on the asteroid threat for policymakers. And they even discussed how private companies might join in the effort to monitor asteroids, potentially for the purpose of extracting mineral wealth from space rocks.
Von der Dunk heads next to the Planetary Defense Conference in Spain April 27-30, where he will present the conference recommendations to the International Academy of Astronautics and the European Space Agency.
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