NEW YEAR MESSAGE FROM SPACEGUARD UK
by Jay Tate
May I wish you all the very best for the New Year.
1999 was a landmark year for Spaceguard UK, starting with Lembit Opik's parliamentary debate in March, Lord Tanlaw's question in the House of Lords in June and our meeting with the minister, Lord Sainsbury, in July. As a result of the latter, the British National Space centre will announce, during the first half of January, the establishment of a government task force to investigate the threat posed to the Earth by asteroids and comets. I am afraid that the details must remain confidential until the official announcement, but I can reveal that the task force will have three members, one of whom is Sir Crispin Tickell. Sir Crispin is, as you know, a Patron of Spaceguard UK, and extremely supportive of our efforts.
As you all know, Spaceguard UK has been working, with its extensive membership (which includes the majority of the worlds expertise in this field) and supporters from all walks of life, to persuade the government that the magnitude of impact hazard merits action. We applaud the minister, Lord Sainsbury, on his July decision to investigate the most serious natural hazard facing the United Kingdom. Spaceguard UK, with its network of contacts worldwide, will place all of its resources at the disposal of the task force.
There is no doubt that projects to detect asteroids and comets must be international in nature; basic geography dictates that. However, there is a requirement for national centres for a number of reasons:
The detection of asteroids and comets is only the beginning of a long and complicated process to determine their orbits and their physical properties. The follow-up work required for this is not as glamorous as detection, but is just as essential. The UK has established expertise in the fields required for this complex work.
Without a national focus, the UK will be totally dependent on foreign agencies for its information. As we saw in March 1998 when it was announced that an asteroid (XF11) had the potential to strike the Earth, there was no response from the British government at all. The public, looking for reassurance and information, was left in the lurch. Private and foreign organisations filled the gap and assumed responsibility for telling the public what was going on. There have been two more cases recently of asteroids with small but non-zero collision probabilities and again there has been no response from government departments. As the detection programmes in the US ramp up, cases like these will happen more and more frequently. A dedicated organisation is required to handle this situation.
The threat from asteroidal or cometary impacts, while being low probability but very high consequence, exceeds by orders of magnitude the governments own threshold of risk tolerability. Compared with nuclear safety, BSE/CJD, GM food and so on, the impact threat is in a league of its own.
The International Astronomical Union (Torino IMPACT Symposium, Jun 99) and the United Nations (UNISPACE III Conference, Jun 99) have both made specific recommendations that governments should initiate national programmes as part of the global programme. It is this very participation in the international Spaceguard programme that the proposed National Spaceguard Centre would seek to address.
2000 promises to be an exciting year. Now that all of the millennium nonsense is dying down we can get back to the real work!
Impact 9 will be out in a week or two, when we have more details of the task force.
All the best
Jonathan Tate is the President of Spaceguard UK.