Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

British government responds to NEO task force report

Posted: February 26, 2001

An artist's concept of a massive asteroid hitting the Earth. Photo: NASA
The British government issued a response Saturday to a task force report on the threat posed by near-Earth asteroids and comets, concurring with many of the recommendations in the report but promising little in the way of immediate, concrete action.

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, in an official response to a report published last September by a government-backed task force, described what he called a "four-point package" that leans heavily on proposals for international cooperation in the search for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could impact the Earth.

"The potential threat of asteroids and other near-Earth objects to our planet is an international problem requiring international action," Lord Sainsbury said in a statement Saturday. "The UK through the measures announced today can play an important part in how the international community tackles this potential problem."

Those measures include plans by the UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) to review how British telescopes can be used to discover and monitor NEOs. In addition, Lord Sainsbury said that the British National Space Centre will be the government organization responsible for coordinating NEO policy in the UK.

The international action Lord Sainsbury referred to includes plans by the European Space Agency to hold a meeting on the subject this summer to discuss a broader European role in the NEO search. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 30 large industrialized countries that includes many western European countries, Japan, and the United States, is also considering setting up a forum to discuss the NEO threat.

Beyond the four-point package, however, the government response contained few specific proposals or plans. One exception was a statement that the UK was discussing proposals with the European Southern Observatory, a multinational consortium Britain is in the process of joining, to either build a 3-meter telescope or refurbish an existing 2- to 4-meter telescope in Chile and devote it to NEO searches. Plans for such a telescope would be considered as part of PPARC's broader review of British astronomical resources.

The three-person task force, created by the British government last year to study the NEO threat, issued 14 recommendations dealing not only with searching and tracking NEOs but also "mitigation" issues, such as ways to deflect an object on an impact trajectory or dealing with the aftermath of a NEO impact. The mitigation recommendations were largely glossed over in the government response, saying it was premature to deal with them until the NEO population and any threat they pose is better understood.

"The Government takes the view that the first priority for the UK and its international partners should be to find, track and characterize near-Earth objects in order to gain a greater understanding of the nature of the NEO threat," the response noted. "The complex and controversial issue of mitigating their effects can then be addressed."

The lack of specific initiatives in the government response was criticized by some in Britain who had expected the government to take more action. "Today's response by Her Majesty's Government to the NEO Task Force Report is disappointing and falls short of what was widely expected," said Benny Peiser, a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University and moderator of the Cambridge Conference Network, an electronic mailing list whose members include many prominent NEO researchers worldwide. "It was perhaps too optimistic to hope that the Government would implement all of the Task Force's 14 recommendations. But the failure to announce any significant action -- or indeed any financial commitment -- is unsatisfactory."

"Disappointingly he [Lord Sainsbury] failed to announce any substantive action beyond the establishment of further studies and the holding of talks with various national and international bodies," said Jonathan Tate, director of Spaceguard UK, an organization that promotes continued study into the NEO impact threat. "There is the possibility that these may provide the basis for a British project at some time in the future, but a golden opportunity for the UK to take a world lead is in danger of being lost."

Tate used the government response as an opportunity to announce the formation of an independent Spaceguard Centre, to be set up at the former Powys Observatory in Wales. "The role of the Spaceguard Centre will be to provide an educational resource for the public, schools and the media, at the same time acting as an interface between the scientific community and the media to ensure the rapid and accurate passage of information," he explained. The creation of such a center was included in the task forcešs recommendations, but the government in its response said only that it would look into options for establishing it.

"The establishment of an independent National Spaceguard Centre, as announced by Spaceguard UK today, ensures that the public will remain thoroughly informed on NEO research and planetary defense issues," said Peiser, endorsing the Spaceguard UK announcement. "It will also continue to lobby the Government in order to ensure that the vague promises made today will be followed by concrete action."