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World Action Plan Emerging to Combat Asteroid Threat

World Action Plan Emerging to Combat Asteroid Threat
An artist's illustration of a large asteroid headed for Earth.
(Image: © ESA)

DARMSTADT, Germany ? Space agencies around the world are workingto be ready to coordinate their response to any potentially harmful asteroidheaded for Earth.

To help focus a world-classplanetary defense against threateningnear-Earth objects, the space experts are seeking to establish a high-levelMission Planning and Operations Group, or MPOG for short.

Veteran astronauts and spaceplanners gathered here atthe European Space Agency's European Space Operations Center Oct. 27-29 to shape the asteroidthreat response plan and establish an Information Analysis and WarningNetwork.

The MPOG workshop was organizedby the European Space Agency, the Association of Space Explorers and SecureWorld Foundation (for whom this columnist is a research associate).

"It was the firstface-to-face meeting of representatives from space agencies wrestling with the toughgeopolitical and technical issues which they will face when we're confrontedwith an actual impact threat," said former Apollo astronaut RustySchweickart, a workshop leader and longtime activist on ways to protect theEarth from future asteroid impacts.

Sticky issues with space rocks

While the technical issues ? earlywarning and deflection ? are challenging, they essentially pale in comparisonwith the very sticky issues that will confront the community of nations whenthey have to make a collective decision to act on an actual threat, Schweickarttold SPACE.com. [5Reasons to Care About Asteroids]

"This really has to be acollective decision," Schweickart said, "since, in the deflectionprocess, there will be a trail of nations across which the impact point movesas we shift it off the Earth."

The space agencies in the MPOGworkshop grappled with the questions of what would have to be performed and howthey would do it, Schweickart said, "either as the 'designated hitter,' asit were ? or collectively in some way. These are difficult geopolitical challenges,and the workshop provided the first face-to-face setting for many of the spaceagencies to grapple with it together."

The workshop touched upon a number of strategies todeflect an incoming object, but there was also discussion of using a"physics package," space slang for a nuclear bomb if need be.There remains a good deal of discussion over which deflection strategy bestserves the planet and humankind ? if time is on our side.

Asteroid workshop findings

Participants agreed that the"sooner the better" would be the best approach to identifying amenacing NEO. Early identification would enable a much more coordinatedapproach between nations to fend off any head-on collision between our sweetworld and a large space rock.

"Understanding how to react if we werereally faced with an imminent asteroid impact threat is very important. Thisworkshop was an important part of defining the decision process," saidDetlef Koschny, Near-Earth Object segment manager of ESA in the Netherlands anda coordinator of the MPOG workshop.

In a post-workshop handout, the attendeesconcluded that:

  • A Mission Planning and Operations Group should be established.
  • The MPOG should identify to space agencies the technical issues involved in planetary defense, to take advantage of synergies between human exploration, science, and study of the NEO hazard.

  • The MPOG should propose research themes in NEO deflection for use by space agencies, addressing those areas most critical for effective deflection strategies.
  • There is great value in finding hazardous NEOs early, to reduce the costs of deflection missions. Early detection would require upgraded NEO search and tracking capabilities.

What next?

The results of the workshop willbe folded into the ongoing work of the United Nations Committee on the PeacefulUses of Outer Space in its sessions next spring and summer. This will all cometogether as a set of recommendations or procedures that will be put before theU.N. General Assembly in about a year.

"By coordinating future MPOGmeetings with the asteroid decision-making efforts in the U.N., the spacefaringnations can prepare for joint action against a future asteroid impact,"said former astronaut Tom Jones, chairman of the Association of SpaceExplorers' Committee on Near-Earth Objects.

"This meeting advanced thetechnical solutions we'll need to respond to an impact threat," Jonesadded.

"The U.N. process addressesinternational decision-making ? when to mount a deflection campaign.Both efforts will need to progress far beyond these early discussions to createa true asteroid response capability," Jones told SPACE.com.

ESA's multi-pronged approach

Moving out on the planetary defenseissue is the European Space Agency. For its part, the ESA has kick-started amulti-pronged and phased SpaceSituational Awareness Preparatory Program, said Nicolas Bobrinsky, who is headof the effort.

The initiative would give Europe thecapability to watch for objects and natural phenomena that could harmsatellites in orbit or facilities on the ground. Bobrinsky noted that anasteroid impact would release devastating kinetic energy causing a myriad ofwoes, from blast waves and tsunamis to atmospheric disturbances andelectromagnetic effects.

The NEO component of the ESA plan includesdiscovery, identification and orbit-prediction functions, as well as a futurecivil warning capability. Full operational services are to be implemented in2012-19.

Meanwhile, Schweickart said thetruism in the forefront of the NEO-versus-Earth dialogue today is, "Findthem early, find them early, and find them early."

"Upgrading our telescopiccapability to find the far more numerous smaller but still verydangerous asteroids is the most important investment we can make,"Schweickart concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on the spaceindustry for more than five decades and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and SpaceWorld magazines.

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