The United Nations has approved a set of measures to protect our planet from the dangers of incoming asteroids. The recently-adopted guidelines will correct a number of outstanding issues, including global coordination and an actual response plan.
Indeed, this has been a long time coming. The guidelines were developed back in 2008 by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), an initiative headed by Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart. But it probably took the recent Chelyabinsk incident — and the fact that we were completely blindsided by it — for the UN to finally take notice.
No doubt, the world needs an international asteroid warning system. There are millions of asteroids orbiting the sun, of which 10,000 are considered near-Earth objects (NEOs). Recently, Ukrainian astronomers detected a massive quarter-mile wide asteroid that has a 1 in 63,000 chance of smashing into us in 2032. The odds are slim, but frightening nonetheless. It's a not-so-subtle reminder that other NEOs may be lurking undetected.
This past Friday, at an event hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History, Schweickart and fellow astronaut Ed Lu spoke about the newly adopted guidelines.
Scientific American's Clara Moskowitz summarizes:
The U.N. plans to set up an “International Asteroid Warning Group” for member nations to share information about potentially hazardous space rocks. If astronomers detect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth, the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraft to slam into the object and deflect it from its collision course.
Lu and other members of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) recommended these steps to the U.N. as a first step to address at the long-neglected problem of errant space rocks. “No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” ASE member Rusty Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969, said at the museum. “NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency.” The ASE advocates that each nation delegate responsibility for dealing with a potential asteroid impact to an internal agency—before the event is upon us.
The next step in defending Earth against dangerous asteroids is to find them, Lu said. “There are 100 times more asteroids out there than we have found. There are about 1 million asteroids large enough to destroy New York City or larger. Our challenge is to find these asteroids first before they find us.”
This is obviously great, but I'm surprised to hear that they want to slam something into an incoming asteroid. Not only could the asteroid brush aside our feeble, unproven efforts, it might also fragment into many parts, posing even more risks to Earth. There are more elegant proposals out there, including the positioning of a heavy spacecraft next to an NEO in order to steer it off course using the power of gravity. It's likely that the ASE is thinking along pragmatic lines; we may not have much time to react, so blowing up an asteroid may be the quickest and most sensible solution.
And indeed, detection is key. To that end, Lu has founded the B612 Foundation, a not-for-profit that's developing an infrared space telescope called Sentinel that it hopes to launch in 2017.