Spaceguard - a bargain insurance policy against killer asteroids


"Spaceguard" is an international effort to search the skies for large asteroids that might collide with Earth and devastate civilisation. The present Australian government has consistently tried to ignore the hazard posed by asteroid impacts and the need for Spaceguard, in contradiction to the scientific evidence published in international journals, and against all assessments carried out by such organisations as the US government, the UK government, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the International Astronomical Union.

Now a space policy document issued by the government in June this year calls into question the Australian government's stand on Spaceguard. The document "Maximum Probable Loss Methodology" sets out guidelines for assessing the losses from rocket launch failures and was issued by the Space Licensing and Safety Office of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. These guidelines value "casualties", that is death or serious injury, at $5 million each and note that probabilities of death or injury greater than one in 10 million are "unacceptable".

The risk, in any one year, of an asteroid impact at a level causing global devastation (upwards of one-quarter of all humanity being killed) is estimated to be between about one in 100,000 and one in 500,000. Over five million Australians would die, perhaps a greater proportion than in most other nations because we mostly live on the coasts, and so are especially vulnerable to the mega-tsunamis associated with large asteroid impacts. Using the extremely conservative values of five million deaths and a one-in-500,000 annual chance then the Government's $5 million valuation of each life gives an annual expectation of loss of about $50 million. This figure does not include the costs of injuries or property damage, let alone the consequences of global economic collapse. Also it does not account for the effects of smaller impacts that cause regional devastation.

By the government's own guidelines the lack of action on Spaceguard is unacceptable.

As astronomer Duncan Steel has pointed out, this makes the Spaceguard program an absolute bargain insurance policy for civilisation.

[UK to set up an asteroid research centre]

On 17 August this year the British government announced that it was setting up a centre to study the asteroid threat and provide information to the public. The centre was proposed last year by a task force of top British scientists who were asked to investigate Britain's involvement in Spaceguard.

Australia has had a Spaceguard information centre for nearly five years. It is a website operated by the Planetary Society Australian Volunteers and covers a wide range of topics from the cost of running a major search program (about $600,000 per year) to the death toll from tsunami generated by ocean impacts. In their report, the British task force describe the Australian website as "a particularly useful resource". Plans for the website started in 1996 when the Australian government cancelled a highly successful asteroid search project based at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales.

Society Volunteer Michael Paine, who maintains the website in Australia said that it had been very frustrating dealing with a succession of Australian government ministers. He said that the lack of interest from Defence portfolio had been particularly disappointing because it clearly had a major role to play. In the USA, scientists and engineers are enthusiastically turning their Cold War defence projects into asteroid impact research. Telescopes previously used for tracking soviet satellites are now looking for killer asteroids. Super-computer programs that simulate the effects of nuclear explosions are being used to estimate the environmental effects of asteroid impacts with the Earth and the feasibility of deflecting Earth-bound asteroids.

Contact
Michael Paine, Ph 02 94514870 mpaine@tpgi.com.au

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