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UN urged to adopt asteroid impact treaty

Failing to prepare is preparing to die

AAAS Moves are afoot in the astronaut community to hustle the UN into adopting a treaty which would set a deflection mission in motion if Earth was threatened by a large asteroid impact.

A series of four meetings organised by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) will seek to draw up a protocol which the UN can act upon when potentially Earthbound large objects are identified. The first is set for Strasbourg in May, and the invited group of space, engineering, legal and diplomatic luminaries will deliver its recommendations to the UN, which is following the discussions.

Its success after that will be a matter for the politicians, said ASE chairman and Apollo program astronaut Rusty Schweickart at the AAAS meeting in San Francisco on Friday.

The measures the group will propose will include set responses to the detection of an object aimed at cutting the time before a decision on what action to take is made. The ASE has arranged the meetings without governmental prompting "for the good of humanity". Schweickart said: "We all know the difficulty the UN has in making any decision, let alone a time-critical one."

The number of known near-Earth asteroids which have a chance of hitting Earth in the next 100 years currently stands at 127, but that figure is expected to rocket to as high as 10,000 by 2020 , after Congress changes NASA's mandate to include surveying space for such threats. Schweickart told reporters the boost in public awareness as more objects are identified will force politicians to act. He said: "This is going to be an inherently international decision. Whether they like it or not they're going to have to do deal with it."

The biggest problem for any treaty as Schweickart sees it is the inherently altruistic nature of anwering the problem - by funding a global plan nations would have to accept individual sacrifices for the good of the whole of planet. Familiarity with the toothless Kyoto Protocol on climate change is instructive on how difficult that can be to achieve.

He added that there would need to be an understanding from governments that surveying the sky for threats needs to be thought of separately from the rest of astronomy: "What we're talking about here is not a science - what we're talking about is public safety."

That view was backed up by NASA Ames asteroid hazard chief David Morrison, who said: "This has gone from being an esoteric statistical argument to one about real events."

According to NASA shuttle engineer Edward Lu, the current favoured method for deflecting an asteroid is known as a gravity tractor, which would involved sending a space craft to "hover" close to the asteroid and so gradually draw it off course by gravitational attraction. In the case of the most recent headline-grabbing menace to humanity, Apophis, it would take a one tonne craft twelve days to deflect the asteroid one Earth's radius.

The ASE workshops will aim to deliver a protocol to the UN in Spring 2009. Schweickart said: "We can't prevent a hurricane, we can't prevent a tornado. But we can prevent an asteroid impact, and if we don't we're not much past the dinosaurs. " ®

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