24 February 2001
In January 2000, following discussions in Parliament and approaches from members of the public, the Government announced the setting up of a Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects.
Dr Harry Atkinson, formerly of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) and former Chairman of the European Space Agency's Council, was invited to lead the Task Force. He was assisted by Sir Crispin Tickell, British diplomat, and Professor David Williams, former President of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The Task Force was invited to make proposals to the Government on how the United Kingdom should best contribute to international effort on Near Earth Objects, and to advise the Government on what further action to take.
After extensive consultation with interested parties and the scientific community both nationally and internationally, the Task Force published its report on 18 September 2000. The report is available at http://www.nearearthobjects.co.uk.
The Government would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work the Task Force has done in getting to grips with this complex issue. Their well-prepared report is the first comprehensive review, as far as we are aware, of this challenging subject. The report has been well received both in the UK and internationally and has already played an important role in raising international awareness of the potential threat.
Having considered the report, the Government's view is that since the possible dangers posed by Near Earth Objects are not limited to any one nation, an international approach to the problem is essential. Here in the UK we have a great deal to bring to an international approach including:
& A strong track record in astronomy and in sky surveys (e.g. UK Schmidt Survey);
& A wide field survey telescope in the southern hemisphere (VISTA) and the UK Infrared Telescope in the northern hemisphere which is being adapted for survey work;
& Through its facilities in La Palma and its future membership of the European Southern Observatory the UK has or will have access to a number of small and medium sized telescopes in both hemispheres which could be used or adapted for survey and follow-up work;
& Particular skills in telescope design and construction in both academia and industry;
& UK industry produces what are currently the state of the art CCD imaging chips for astronomical use. This is a key technology for Near Earth Object study;
& Expertise in small satellite technology.
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 complex and controversial issue of mitigating their effects can then be addressed.
Many of the report's scientific recommendations on the need to find, track and characterize Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are inter-related. The UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, PPARC, has undertaken to use the expertise available in its scientific community to produce costed options analysing the most effective way of implementing the telescope-based recommendations as a group (recommendations 1, 2, 4 and 5).
The Government's response to the individual recommendations of the Task Force's Report is set out below. This document is also available through the British National Space Centre website, http://www.bnsc.gov.uk, and through the Near Earth Objects website, http://www.nearearthobjects.co.uk.
Negotiations with and between international institutions, and analysis of complex scientific proposals, take time. The Government therefore undertakes to provide a further report later this year on its progress in implementing the response set out below.
Response to Recommendations
Survey and discovery of Near Earth Objects Recommendation 1 We recommend that the Government should seek partners, preferably in Europe, to build in the southern hemisphere an advanced new 3 metre-class survey telescope for surveying substantially smaller objects than those now systematically observed by other telescopes. The telescope should be dedicated to work on Near Earth Objects and be located on an appropriate site.
In November 2000 the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced that the UK intended to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) whose telescopes are in the southern hemisphere. ESO has indicated that it is interested in exploring with the UK the possibility that a 3 metre-class telescope could be made available at its observing sites in Chile. This could take the form of the new telescope envisaged in the recommendation, or a modification of one of ESO's existing 2-4 metre telescopes. The latter option would not necessarily compromise the telescope's efficiency.
PPARC has offered to take the lead in preparing costed options for how this recommendation could best be implemented, together with similar studies of recommendations 2, 4 and 5. Decisions on which options to take forward will need to be made against the background of funding priorities.
Recommendation 2 We recommend that arrangements be made for observational data obtained for other purposes by wide-field facilities, such as the new British VISTA telescope, to be searched for Near Earth Objects on a nightly basis.
PPARC will consider this recommendation as part of the analysis they will undertake of telescope facilities related to NEOs. PPARC will also address how survey data could be made available to identify or track NEOs through the 'Virtual Observatory' project. This project, called AstroGrid, plans to give astronomers remote access through the Internet to a number of UK and other European telescopes.
Recommendation 3 We recommend that the Government draw the attention of the European Space Agency to the particular role that GAIA, one of its future missions, could play in surveying the sky for Near Earth Objects. The potential in GAIA, and in other space missions such as NASA's SIRTF and the European Space Agency's BepiColombo, for Near Earth Object research should be considered as a factor in defining the missions and in scheduling their completion.
Government officials have already drawn the European Space Agency's attention to the role that GAIA and BepiColumbo could play in NEO survey.
In the case of GAIA, a comprehensive stellar survey telescope proposed for launch no later than 2012, it has been established that additional data analysis capability could be added into the specification of the mission to search for moving objects such as asteroids. This mission is currently in the design stage and it is expected that this capability will be included in the implementation of the mission, should it prove feasible. The specification of the BepiColumbo mission to Mercury (planned for launch in 2009) has also been altered to include a dedicated NEO camera. BepiColumbo should provide unique data on those asteroids whose orbits are mostly interior to the earth's orbit round the Sun.
The exact scheduling of these two missions depends on the decisions taken at the European Space Agency Ministerial Council meeting in November 2001.
The UK Government has drawn NASA's attention to the role its SIRTF mission could play in NEO research. SIRTF is expected to make a further contribution to identification and characterization of NEOs.
Accurate orbit determination
Recommendation 4 We recommend that the 1 metre Johannes Kapteyn Telescope on La Palma, in which the United Kingdom is a partner, be dedicated to follow-up observations of Near Earth Objects.
Following the Task Force's Report, PPARC has already discussed access to the Johannes Kapteyn Telescope with its international partners (the use of the JKT is shared in particular with the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research), and has received an encouraging response. It has started to develop a costed analysis with the Director of the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes, in the Canary Islands.
The preparation of this analysis will form part of PPARC's analysis of telescope facilities related to NEOs.
Composition and gross properties
Recommendation 5 We recommend that negotiations take place with the partners with whom the United Kingdom shares suitable telescopes to establish an arrangement for small amounts of time to be provided under appropriate financial terms for spectroscopic follow-up of Near Earth Objects.
PPARC already supports a number of high scientific priority studies and observations of NEOs through research grants and telescope time. This is expected to continue. There may be opportunities through the recent Spending Review settlement, in particular through funds directed to information technology, to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of these studies.
PPARC will consider this recommendation as part of its analysis of telescope facilities related to NEOs.
Recommendation 6 We recommend that the Government explore, with like-minded countries, the case for mounting a number of coordinated space rendezvous missions based on relatively inexpensive microsatellites, each to visit a different type of Near Earth Object to establish its detailed characteristics.
The Government recognises the importance of characterizing NEOs and the value of initiatives such as NASA's NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros. The Government will explore through the European Space Agency the possibility for future microsatellite rendezvous missions, emphasising the potential of such missions to achieve both scientific and technological objectives.
Coordination of astronomical observations
Recommendation 7 We recommend that the Government - together with other governments, the International Astronomical Union and other interested parties - seek ways of putting the governance and funding of the Minor Planet Center on a robust international footing, including the Center's links to executive agencies if a potential threat were found.
The Government welcomes the work done by the Minor Planet Centre and values its role in coordinating and archiving data on NEOs. NASA is currently pursuing a number of options to provide suitable funding for the Minor Planets Centre and the Government will work together with NASA, the International Astronomical Union, the European Space Agency and other European partners to identify appropriate support to the international effort.
In addition, the Government will explore with ESA whether it has plans for similar facilities in Europe.
Studies of impacts and environmental and social effects
Recommendation 8 We recommend that the Government should help promote multi- disciplinary studies of the consequences of impacts from Near Earth Objects on the Earth in British and European institutions concerned, including the Research Councils, universities and the European Science Foundation.
The Government has drawn the attention of the Research Councils to the Task Force's report and the importance of multi-disciplinary studies of this nature. Funding for high quality scientific proposals of interdisciplinary studies related to impact consequences is already available through the Research Councils' peer review process. In addition, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council makes a small contribution to the European Science Foundation's multidisciplinary IMPACT programme, looking at "the nature of impacts and their impact on nature".
Recommendation 9 We recommend that the Government, with other governments, set in hand studies to look into the practical possibilities of mitigating the results of impact and deflecting incoming objects.
There is currently a scarcity of precise knowledge about the exact nature of the NEO threat. Mitigating any impact by deflection would appear to be a more attractive option than break-up, since the latter might well result in a greater number of smaller NEOs to cope with world-wide. Discussions of this global problem with the US Department of Defense, NASA, ESA and the UK Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) have thus far provided no clear position on what should be done, although it is clear that the highest priority lies in the provision of improved observation to provide the maximum possible warning time. Options for deflecting NEOs range from the launch of small spacecraft many years in advance of the predicted impact date to rendezvous with the NEO to gently "nudge" it away from its collision course, through to last minute deflection using high energy explosive devices, the use of which would need to be very carefully considered.
In relation to mitigation, the Home Office has studied the possible consequences of emergencies of this sort, and contingency arrangements are already in place. These involve local agencies (principally the police, fire and ambulance with local authorities and health providers), who plan, train and exercise together so that any response is co-ordinated. An impact in the UK from a NEO would be dealt with under these arrangements.
If the level of threat were identified as being significant (in time and magnitude), specific arrangements would need to be put in place. These would fall under the aegis of the Civil Contingencies Committee, a committee of Ministers and senior officials chaired by the Home Secretary or senior Home Office official.
Recommendation 10 We recommend that the Government urgently seek with other governments and international bodies (in particular the International Astronomical Union) to establish a forum for open discussion of the scientific aspects of Near Earth Objects, and a forum for international action. Preferably these should be brought together in an international body. It might have some analogy with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, thereby covering science, impacts, and mitigation.
The Government agrees on the need for an international forum to discuss and co-ordinate action on the NEO issue. The Government welcomes an approach already received from the OECD with an offer to assist in this area. Their approach is particularly attractive as the OECD has the reach to pull in the main players in space-related activity. Discussions of the risk from NEOs might also contribute to OECD's project on Emerging Systemic Risks, with which the UK is already associated.
Organisation in Europe
Recommendation 11 We recommend that the Government discuss with like-minded European governments how Europe could best contribute to international efforts to cope with Near Earth Objects, coordinate activities in Europe, and work towards becoming a partner with the United States, with complementary roles in specific areas. We recommend that the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory, with the European Union and the European Science Foundation, work out a strategy for this purpose in time for discussion at the ministerial meeting of the European Space Agency in 2001.
The Government welcomes this recommendation. The Science Programme of ESA has undertaken the task of convening a European forum of "decision makers" in the course of 2001 to discuss Europe's role in this area. In parallel, the European Science Foundation is preparing a report on NEOs. The European Southern Observatory is also keen to be involved in these discussions.
Organisation in United Kingdom
Recommendation 12 We recommend that the Government appoint a single department to take the lead for coordination and conduct of policy on Near Earth Objects, supported by the necessary inter-departmental machinery.
The Government accepts this recommendation. The British National Space Centre will take the lead in Whitehall on policy in this area. BNSC is a successful example of joined up Government which brings together those Government Departments and Research Councils with an interest in civil space. It includes the majority of Departments or Research Councils with an interest in the NEO issue i.e. the Department of Trade and Industry, Office of Science and Technology, Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and DERA.
As the Department within Government with responsibility for civil emergencies, the Home Office would take over as Lead Government Department in the event of civil emergencies arising from an imminent impact or the aftermath of one.
Consultation between BNSC and the Home Office will take place through close working with the Home Office Emergency Planning Division. In addition coordination meetings will take place between interested Departments and Research Councils.
British National Centre for Near Earth Objects
Recommendation 13 We recommend that a British Centre for Near Earth Objects be set up whose mission would be to promote and coordinate work on the subject in Britain; to provide an advisory service to the Government, other relevant authorities, the public and the media, and to facilitate British involvement in international activities. In doing so it would call on the Research Councils involved, in particular the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, and on universities, observatories and other bodies concerned in Britain.
See the response to recommendation 14 below.
Recommendation 14 We recommend that one of the most important functions of a British Centre for Near Earth Objects be to provide a public service which would give balanced information in clear, direct and comprehensible language as need might arise. Such a service must respond to very different audiences: on the one hand Parliament, the general public and the media; and on the other the academic, scientific and environmental communities. In all of this, full use should be made of the Internet. As a first step, the Task Force recommends that a feasibility study be established to determine the functions, terms of reference and funding for such a Centre.
At this stage, the Government foresees that a key role for such a facility would be to act as a showcase for the public on NEO issues, providing clear and balanced information and hence assisting in the public understanding of science. The Government will look into the options available for developing such a centre.
In addition to the Government's response to the Task Force's Report, the UK is taking a leading role in four related developments.
The NEO report and actions arising from it are to be discussed at the March meeting of the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee steering group.
The report is also to be discussed at the Scientific and Technical subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in February. At this meeting a joint symposium on Space Hazards will be held by the International Scientific Union Committee on Space Research and the International Astronautical Federation. NEOs will be discussed along with other hazards such as man-made space debris. BNSC will participate actively in this symposium to promote consideration of both issues.
BNSC is encouraging ESA to bring the NEO issue to the agenda of the ESA International Relations Committee.
BNSC has raised the issue of NEOs within the European Space Agency's Working Group for the Space Debris Network of Centres and will continue to report to that group on progress.
Finally, the Government would once again like to pay warm tribute to the excellent work of the Task Force, led by Dr Harry Atkinson, and to emphasize the importance that it attaches to carrying this work forward.
" Crown Copyright. http://www.dti.gov.uk/ DTI/Pub /02/01/NP.