Deflecting Earth-bound asteroids becoming a global effort
Europe is ramping up efforts to detect incoming asteroids. Scientists and astronauts met for the first time in Germany to discuss options for defending the Earth from asteroids.
Space agencies around the world are working to be ready to coordinate their response to any potentially harmful asteroid headed for Earth.Skip to next paragraph
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To help focus a world-class planetary defense against threatening near-Earth objects, the space experts are seeking to establish a high-level Mission Planning and Operations Group, or MPOG for short.
Veteran astronauts and space planners gathered here at the European Space Agency's European Space Operations Center Oct. 27-29 to shape the asteroid threat response plan and establish an Information Analysis and Warning Network.
"It was the first face-to-face meeting of representatives from space agencies wrestling with the tough geopolitical and technical issues which they will face when we're confronted with an actual impact threat," said former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, a workshop leader and longtime activist on ways to protect the Earth from future asteroid impacts.
Sticky issues with space rocks
While the technical issues – early warning and deflection – are challenging, they essentially pale in comparison with the very sticky issues that will confront the community of nations when they have to make a collective decision to act on an actual threat, Schweickart told SPACE.com. [5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids]
"This really has to be a collective decision," Schweickart said, "since, in the deflection process, there will be a trail of nations across which the impact point moves as we shift it off the Earth."
The space agencies in the MPOG workshop grappled with the questions of what would have to be performed and how they would do it, Schweickart said, "either as the 'designated hitter,' as it were ... or collectively in some way. These are difficult geopolitical challenges, and the workshop provided the first face-to-face setting for many of the space agencies to grapple with it together."
The workshop touched upon a number of strategies to deflect an incoming object, but there was also discussion of using a "physics package," space slang for a nuclear bomb if need be. There remains a good deal of discussion over which deflection strategy best serves the planet and humankind – if time is on our side.
Asteroid workshop findings
Participants agreed that the "sooner the better" would be the best approach to identifying a menacing NEO. Early identification would enable a much more coordinated approach between nations to fend off any head-on collision between our sweet world and a large space rock.
"Understanding how to react if we were really faced with an imminent asteroid impact threat is very important. This workshop was an important part of defining the decision process," said Detlef Koschny, Near-Earth Object segment manager of ESA in the Netherlands and a coordinator of the MPOG workshop.