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UK Government Response to the NEO Task Force Recommendations Update January 2005

Status Report From: British National Space Centre
Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

image Summary of Recommendations

Recommendations 1 to 9 cover the United Kingdom's scientific role within a wider international effort and Recommendations 10 to 14 address the co-ordination of all aspects of the subject internationally, within Europe, and in the UK.

Introduction

The Government takes the threat from Near Earth Objects (asteroids, comets) very seriously. Lord Sainsbury set up a Task Force (TF) to consider what part the UK could play in the international effort. The Government's response was published in February 2001, accepting aspects of most of the 14 recommendations as important. In practice this has included BNSC taking the policy lead and supporting the Cabinet Office on mitigation issues as well as setting up the NEO Information Centre in Leicester to keep the public informed. Improved identification is a high priority and we are working with others to help achieve this. An example is an activity by UK researchers who have carried out NEO follow-up and analysis activities with an emphasis on potentially hazardous objects. An update to the response was issued on 1 January 2002. Lord Sainsbury met former members of the Task Force on 20 October 2003. A further significant response was provided by way of Government replies to 11 PQs in February and March 2004.

Some of the recommendations of the UK TF continue to be addressed by individual bodies, such as COSPAR, or groupings of international bodies who are best placed to carry them forward e.g. the International Council for Science (ICSU). Yet other bodies have been active in the area for many years and remain so, e.g. the US (NASA and DoD) continue to lead in many areas and the IAU and the Spaceguard Foundation play a leading role in coordination and carrying NEO activities forward.

The UK will continue to monitor the developing situation.

Science funding

International science programmes have funded a wide range of NEO related missions and more are planned. The ESA Rosetta mission is a recent example and others such as NEAR, Stardust and Deep Impact have been well reported. The aim for future space science missions should be to ensure, where possible, that they produce useful NEO data consistent with the primary mission objectives. Opportunities will arise on future observatory missions for sharing data with relevant NEO areas of interest e.g. not discarding NEO data as noise; or positively considering capture of such data if it is complementary to, and not conflicting with, the primary data requirements. We will press for data capture to be a requirement in suitable future missions and projects.

Survey and discovery of Near Earth Objects

(Recommendations 1 - 3)

Recommendation 1 - Survey & extending the survey

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.

Further Response

Survey

The Government notes the value of such a 3 metre-class resource for NEO survey but has no plans to build any new telescope dedicated to NEO activities. If funding was available then the preferred route forward would be to seek to negotiate shared use of a 2-3 metre class telescope in the southern hemisphere. The UK will continue to encourage European efforts to utilise 3m class telescopes, particularly in the southern hemisphere, together with appropriate follow-up capability.

Extending the Survey (reference "... for surveying substantially smaller objects than those now systematically observed ...")

A NASA report on a "Study to Determine the Feasibility of Extending the Search for Near Earth Objects to Smaller Limiting Diameters" was published to a NASA web site on 10 September 2003. The report by the NASA NEO Science Definition Team on potential future search efforts for NEOs recommended the formulation of a new target to produce a catalogue for objects down to 140 m. This would continue the work of the current US Spaceguard survey, which aims to find 90 % of the 1 km or larger NEOs by 2008. The NEO community is supportive of this new target, and indeed NEO search facilities currently under construction in the US will have the capability of pushing towards (but not yet achieving) this new goal. An optimal way to approve such a new target and have it understood by the wider international community would be to have that community directly involved in agreeing it.

There are clearly opportunities to extend the depth of the survey at reasonable cost now that more powerful telescopes are becoming available. However, access to the new data and links to follow-up activity will need to be considered as part of the overall process of initiating work on the new target.

The BNSC will work internationally to help agree a new target for systematic observation and follow-up of substantially smaller objects. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and its Action Team 14 on NEOs would be an appropriate body to help coordinate this issue.

Recommendation 2 - Use of other observational data

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.

Further Response

PPARC will continue to look for opportunities to utilise available or planned data that could be applicable to NEO detection or follow-up. VISTA will be operational as an ESO facility in 2006. However, the Taskforce suggested the use of VISTA when it was still envisaged to have an optical camera. Currently this is not the case, it is infrared only with a smaller field of view, and hence its efficiency in discovering NEOs will be far less than originally foreseen.

The international science community will have the ability to apply for time to use VISTA to carry out NEO science programmes. Award of these programmes will be subject to peer review and if the scientific research case is seen to be high they will be supported. Survey for Earth protection is not currently part of the remit of PPARC. Where specific threats are identified, the research community will continue to adopt a flexible approach to utilising existing resources to provide clarifying information. Existing peer review will apply to funding applications. The ESO VISTA telescope is an example of a telescope that will be available on such terms.

Recommendation 3 - The role of other space missions

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 the missions and in scheduling their completion.

Further Response

The UK Government drew ESA's attention to the possible role for GAIA and BepiColombo as mentioned in the initial Government response. However, BepiColombo is not now expected to include any specific NEO capability.

BNSC partners will continue to look for NEO related opportunities on ESA and internationally collaborative space science missions at the concept and initial design phase where possible and aim to ensure, as appropriate, a route to exploitation of the data made available. In terms of the exploitation of available data it will also aim to do this in collaboration with our European partners in ESA and more widely when possible. The STEREO programme (NASA with UK collaboration) has particular prospects in this context and proposals for its use have been made. It may also be possible to consider other general and mission opportunities for NEOs related to data for tracking, analysis and preparation for possible dedicated NEO missions.

Recommendation 4 - Accurate orbit determination

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.

Further Response

A PPARC-funded programme on the INT and JKT has assisted international efforts in tracking 56 potentially dangerous NEOs since 2002. The total amount of time allocated for this modest programme was equivalent to 5 nights with a nominal worth of 25K (5 nights @5,000 per night for the INT/JKT). Dedicated use of the JKT is not planned.

BNSC and PPARC have agreed to jointly contribute to a modest programme to use the newly commissioned Faulkes telescopes to undertake NEO follow-up tracking and characterisation. This programme capitalises on the robotic operation of these world-class telescopes and their geographic separation to deliver science, complementary to studies in the US and elsewhere. The programme will be reviewed during 2005. The 2 metre Faulkes Telescope (with its larger diameter) is a far more effective facility for NEO orbit determination than the JKT as originally proposed by the Taskforce, because of the currently small number of 2-m class telescopes used in this work and the significant number of 1-m class telescopes like the JKT. Indeed it has already allowed the tracking of as many NEOs in 5 months as the original 2.5-year programme. There is also potential for use of the other PPARC-supported telescopes in La Palma, Chile and elsewhere subject to peer review of competing applications.

Composition and gross properties

(Recommendations 5 & 6)

Recommendation 5 - Spectroscopic follow-up

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.

Further Response

PPARC have ensured that there is no impediment to available funding being applied to work in this area and ongoing activity is expected.

From 1999 to 2002 101 NEOs were observed through an override programme on the JKT. The total amount of time allocated for this modest programme was equivalent to 1 night per year with a nominal worth of around 6,000 (2,000 per year x 3 years). Since then further time has been granted via peer review for similar studies using PPARC-supported facilities at ESO.

Recommendation 6 - Rendezvous missions

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.

Further Response

BNSC has welcomed ESA involvement in a round of 6 NEO mission studies

(http://www.esa.int/gsp/completed/neo/index.htm ) and will continue to work with ESA and others to encourage further progress. One of these missions, a British-led NEO proposal called SIMONE (Smallsat Intercept Missions to Objects Near Earth), has been studied which specifically addresses this recommendation. It involves a small fleet of microsatellites that would rendezvous with five different types of NEO and characterise them. Although the ESA Aurora programme is not now scheduled to support NEO related activities it could be progressed through the ESA Science programme or the ESA PROBA small satellite programme.

In January 2004 ESA set up a Near Earth Object Mission Advisory Panel (NEO MAP), involving 6 European scientists active in the NEO area, to analyse the work from the 6 initial mission studies. Their results were published in July 2004 in the report "Space Mission Priorities for Near Earth Object Risk Assessment and Reduction". This panel includes two UK scientists and continues to advise ESA on the most effective use of rendezvous missions.

Recommendation 7 - Coordination of astronomical observations

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.

Further Response

Current funding of the MPC appears to be stable but operation still relies on the dedication of a small team of experts. The planning for any new NEO observation target should include appropriate provision for accurate and timely recording of observations and tasking for follow-up together with the appropriate funding.

Recommendation 8 - Studies of impacts and environmental and social effects

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.

Further Response

The work of the European Science Foundation (ESF) multidisciplinary IMPACT programme, which was completed in 2003, can be found at: http://www.esf.org/esf_article.php?language=0&article=96&domain=3&activity=1 .

As a follow up to the ESF work ESA has encouraged links between the work on terrestrial impacts and those on other planets this has ensured the involvement of a broad range of academic groups in this activity. In addition to planetary missions ESA is also funding work to look for further Earth impact sites using remote sensing data. The study of Earth impacts will assist the study of cratering on other planets.

Following the findings and conclusions of the 1st OECD NEO workshop in January 2003 the ICSU has obtained funding for a multidisciplinary activity on NEOs (with an aim to include environmental and social factors). As the work got underway during 2004 it was coordinated with activities of the IAU, OECD, ESA and others. The UK supports the ongoing efforts. Details of the ICSU work will be reported in 2005.

Recommendation 9 - Mitigation Possibilities

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.

Further Response

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Planetary Defence Conference of February 2004 (http://www.aero.org/conferences/planetdef/ ) continued the work of previous AIAA activity on NEOs such as the workshop in Seville during March 2001. BNSC was represented at both meetings.

The findings and conclusions from the 1st NEO Workshop of the OECD Global Science Forum (GSF) in January 2003 further explain the need for activity in this area e.g. Supporting exploratory R&D for NEO Mitigation. In the UK links have been made between the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat and BNSC to address the predictable risks following procedures similar to those for re-entering space debris.

The ESA NEOMAP specifically recommended a rendezvous and mitigation test mission (Don Quijote) in its 2004 report to ESA (see recommendation 6).

Recommendation 10 - Organisation Internationally

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.

Further Response (Open Discussion and International Action)

Government is aware that a range of different bodies are involved in international discussion of the issues. A case for a new body to coordinate activity has not been made.

The OECD Global Science Forum (GSF) Workshop, under UK Chairmanship, has furthered interest and understanding in the area of NEOs from a broad range of its membership including direct involvement of Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, South Africa and the United States. The International Council for Science (ICSU) project will further this aim and includes, among others the IAU as an active member. The Action Team of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is bringing the issues related to this subject to an ever-larger international audience and particularly developing countries. A study team, working under the auspices of the OECD and under the direction of a UK-chaired Steering Group, will address the risks posed to individual nations by NEOs, and permit comparison with more familiar meteorological and geological hazards, thereby providing a mechanism for governments to analyse there response at national and international level. More details of this work will be published in 2005.

Recommendation 11 - Organisation in Europe

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.

Further Response (European coordination and international contribution)

Activity by the Global Science Forum (GSF) of the OECD has assisted the organisation and understanding of activities in Europe (including the EU as a member of the GSF) as well as reaching the worldwide OECD audience. The UK continues to push for European level coordination to take place enabling a consolidated strategy for Europe, the ESF, ESA, the Council of Europe and the EU were involve in the OECD workshop as well as representatives from Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway.

The ESA Network of Centres working group on Space Debris has a Task Force on Space Surveillance. This group will consider as part of its work the potential overlap in the resources used for observing NEOs and space debris. The use of the US GEODSS (Ground-based Electro-Optic Deep Space Surveillance) system for NEO work (called LINEAR in NEO mode) is a good example of such complementary use.

Organisation in the UK

Recommendation 12 - Policy and coordination lead

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. Further Response

BNSC remains the lead body on NEO policy issues in the UK. The Cabinet Office (Civil Contingencies Secretariat) provides the central focus for cross-departmental and cross-agency commitment, co-ordination and co-operation that would enable the UK to deal effectively with disruptive challenges and crises, and works with BNSC as necessary. BNSC and interested Government Departments, including MOD and PPARC, share information on NEO issues and are in regular contact.

British Centre for Near Earth Objects

Recommendation 13 - British Centre NEO advice & coordination

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 - British NEO information centre

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.

Further Response

The government has accepted the need for improved coordination by setting-up the NEO Information Centre at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester. A team of UK academics supports the Centre. The NEO Information Centre has a main NEO exhibit at the National Space Centre and regional exhibits at the National History Museum, London, W5, Belfast and the Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, Scotland. The NEO Information Centre has a website (www.nearearthobjects.co.uk) containing up-to-date and factual information on NEOs and related risks. It regularly holds public lectures, school visits, science-related events and is in the process of developing education packs available for schools compatible with the national curriculum.

Broader academic coordination is seen to occur via international bodies such as the IAU and the ICSU as well as via ESA, NASA and other agency missions and activities. UK Academics in this area actively collaborate in their research with European and American scientists.

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