U.K. Wakes Up to Asteroid Threat

Spurred by pressure from lawmakers, the British government has established a three-person committee to study the risk of catastrophic asteroid impacts--and what the U.K. might do to help prevent them. The task force, due to report its findings this summer, will be headed by science policy adviser Harry Atkinson, a former chair of the European Space Agency (ESA) Council.

Aided by flicks like Armageddon, the threat of asteroids on a collision course with Earth has recently captured the attention of many scientists as well as the general public. Astronomers have proposed methodical searches for potential doomsday rocks, and to better communicate the risks to the public they devised the Torino scale, which expresses the danger of any approaching asteroid as a number between 1 and 10 (ScienceNOW, 21 July 1999). Some have argued that, if detected early, it might be possible to redirect a dangerous asteroid, for instance by exploding a nuclear charge whose energy could push it into another orbit. Others say such a strategy is doomed to fail, based on recent evidence suggesting that many asteroids are assemblages of smaller rocks that cannot be so easily diverted en masse.

The British task force, created last week by science minister David Sainsbury in response to requests from members of the House of Commons, will give the issue further political visibility, says Atkinson. He says his group will study, for instance, what mechanisms exist to coordinate asteroid observations, and whether international political action to prepare a strategy for warding off incoming asteroids is warranted. So far, there isn't any agreement on what should happen if a dangerous asteroid is discovered, says Marcello Coridini, solar system mission manager at ESA and chair of a working group in which ESA, NASA, and the Russian and Japanese space agencies coordinate their efforts in this field.

Other members of the task force are David Williams, an astronomer of University College London and chair of the Royal Astronomical Society, and Crispin Tickell, chancellor of the University of Kent and a former U.K. representative to the United Nations.