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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.

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In a post-workshop handout, the attendees concluded that:

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  • A Mission Planning and Operations Group should be established.
  • The MPOG should identify to space agencies the technical issues involved in planetary defense, to take advantage of synergies between human exploration, science, and study of the NEO hazard.
  • The MPOG should propose research themes in NEO deflection for use by space agencies, addressing those areas most critical for effective deflection strategies.
  • There is great value in finding hazardous NEOs early, to reduce the costs of deflection missions. Early detection would require upgraded NEO search and tracking capabilities.

What next?

The results of the workshop will be folded into the ongoing work of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in its sessions next spring and summer. This will all come together as a set of recommendations or procedures that will be put before the U.N. General Assembly in about a year.

"By coordinating future MPOG meetings with the asteroid decision-making efforts in the U.N., the spacefaring nations can prepare for joint action against a future asteroid impact," said former astronaut Tom Jones, chairman of the Association of Space Explorers' Committee on Near-Earth Objects.

"This meeting advanced the technical solutions we'll need to respond to an impact threat," Jones added.

"The U.N. process addresses international decision-making ... when to mount a deflection campaign. Both efforts will need to progress far beyond these early discussions to create a true asteroid response capability," Jones told SPACE.com.

ESA's multi-pronged approach

Moving out on the planetary defense issue is the European Space Agency. For its part, the ESA has kick-started a multi-pronged and phased Space Situational Awareness Preparatory Program, said Nicolas Bobrinsky, who is head of the effort.

The initiative would give Europe the capability to watch for objects and natural phenomena that could harm satellites in orbit or facilities on the ground. Bobrinsky noted that an asteroid impact would release devastating kinetic energy causing a myriad of woes, from blast waves and tsunamis to atmospheric disturbances and electromagnetic effects.

The NEO component of the ESA plan includes discovery, identification and orbit-prediction functions, as well as a future civil warning capability. Full operational services are to be implemented in 2012-19.

Meanwhile, Schweickart said the truism in the forefront of the NEO-versus-Earth dialogue today is, "Find them early, find them early, and find them early."

"Upgrading our telescopic capability to find the far more numerous smaller but still very dangerous asteroids is the most important investment we can make," Schweickart concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades and has written for SPACE.com since 1999. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines.

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