Report Of The Near Earth Objects Task Force Published

Press Release From: UK Task Force on Near Earth Objects
Posted: Monday, September 18, 2000

UK Task Force on Near Earth Objects Lord Sainsbury, the Minister with responsibility for space, today published the report of the Near Earth Objects Task Force set up in January this year, to look at the potential risk posed by collision of the Earth with Near Earth Objects.

In publishing the report Lord Sainsbury said:

"The Task Force, under the able chairmanship of Dr Harry Atkinson, has done an excellent job in getting to grips with this complex issue, and in putting together views on how we should proceed.

I welcome the Task Force's approach, which includes proposals for collaboration with international partners. Over the next couple of months I will be considering the Government's response to the Task Force's recommendations in consultation with colleagues".

Notes to Editors:

  1. In January 2000 the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, announced the setting up of a Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects (NEOs). He invited the Task Force to make proposals to the Government on how the United Kingdom should best contribute to international effort on Near-Earth Objects; and specifically to:

    a. confirm the nature of the hazard and the potential level of risks;
    b. dentify the current UK contribution to international efforts;
    c. advise HMG on what further action to take in the light of a. and b. above and on the communication of issues to the public.

  2. The Task Force was chaired by Dr Harry Atkinson, formerly of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) and past Chairman of the European Space Agency's Council. Sir Crispin Tickell, British diplomat, and Professor David Williams, immediate past President of the Royal Astronomical Society, completed the team.

  3. Near Earth Objects are asteroids and comets whose orbits bring them close to the Earth.

  4. The Task Force met on a number of occasions and presented its report to the Director General of BNSC on 16 August 2000. The British National Space Centre (BNSC) provided the secretariat for the Task Force.
  5. The Task Force has made 14 recommendations. They cover the British role in a greater international effort, improvement of our ability to detect any incoming objects, an assessment of risks, measures to mitigate any future impacts, and new national and international arrangements to cope with the many issues that are raised. The report is also a comprehensive review of current knowledge
  6. A copy of the report and further information on NEOs can be found on
Press Enquiries: 020-7215 2345
(Out of Hours : 020-7215 5110/5600)
Public Enquiries: 020-7215 5000
Textphone (for people with hearing impairments): 020-7215 6740

Executive Summary

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.


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.

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.

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 a potential threat were found.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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