Report of the Task Force on the potential dangerous Near Earth Objects

The introductory chapter of the report, gatered by Michael Martin-Smith

On 4 January 2000 the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, announced the setting up of a Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

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:

  1. confirm the nature of the hazard and potential levels of risk;
  2. identify the current UK contribution to international efforts;
  3. advise the Government on what further action to take in the light of 1 and 2 above and on the communication of issues to the public; and to report to the Director General of the British National Space Centre (BNSC) by the middle of 2000.

The Task Force was chaired by Dr Harry Atkinson with Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams as members.

The British National Space Centre provided the Secretary, Richard Tremayne-Smith, and general support. The Task Force met on a number of occasions and presented its Report to the Director General of the British National Space Centre in August 2000.

The Task Force has been supported by the British National Space Centre; and has been helped greatly by many people in the United Kingdom, in Europe, the United States and in other countries. We cannot hope to name them all.

Enormous numbers of asteroids and comets orbit the Sun. Only a tiny fraction of them follow paths that bring them near the Earth. These Near Earth Objects range in size from pebbles to mountains, and travel at high speeds.

Such objects have collided with the Earth since its formation, and brought the carbon and water which made life possible. They have also caused widespread changes in the Earth’s surface, and occasional extinctions of such living organisms as the dinosaurs. The threat has only recently been recognised and accepted.This has come about through advances in telescope technology allowing the study of these usually faint objects, the identification of craters on the moon, other planets and the Earth as a result of impacts, and the dramatic collision of pieces of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1994.

Impacts represent a significant risk to human and other forms of life. Means now exist to mitigate the consequences of such impacts for the human species. The largest uncertainty in risk analysis arises from our incomplete knowledge of asteroids whose orbits bring them near to the Earth.With greater information about them, fairly accurate predictions can be made. The risk from comets is between 10 and 30 per cent of that from asteroids.The advance warning period for a potential impact from a long period comet may be as short as a year compared to decades or centuries for asteroids. Short period comets can be considered along with asteroids.

The threat from Near Earth Objects raises major issues, among them the inadequacy of current knowledge, confirmation of hazard after initial observation, disaster management (if the worst came to the worst), methods of mitigation including deflection, and reliable communication with the public. The Task Force believes that steps should be taken at government level to set in place appropriate bodies – international, European including national – where these issues can be discussed and decisions taken.The United Kingdom is well placed to make a significant contribution to what should be a global effort.

The full text of the UK Task Force report on NEOs can be accessed and down loaded in pdf file from http://www.nearearthobjects.co.uk/

MMS - TDF 3/2000 - 14/10/2000