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Scientists, Astronauts, and Lawyers Combat Asteroid Threat

An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth. Should we try to nudge it off course, or blow it to smithereens? Should we evacuate the projected impact zone? Who will make these decisions—and who will pay for the countermeasures?

Scientists, astronauts, and space law specialists are gathering today and tomorrow at the first ever conference to hash out a legal framework for guiding nations on how to deal with an impending cosmic collision. The meeting at University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln is taking up the gauntlet laid down by a report last September from the Association of Space Explorers calling for a global response to the threat of Near Earth Objects, also known as NEO's.

Over the next 10–15 years, new telescopes should detect some 500,000 NEOs, several dozen of which are expected to pose a risk of striking Earth someday, according to the ASE report. Existing technologies—such as a gravity tractor or a nuclear device, could deflect the “vast majority” of inbound NEOs, the report says.

“There’s now the choice to do something about it, and not simply duck and take the hit,” says space law expert Frans Von Der Dunk, of the University of Nebraska College of Law.

The ASE report proposed forming a committee that will advise the UN on how to coordinate a response to a potential collision. Conference attendees hope to start laying the legal groundwork for this decision-making process—and how to handle unintended consequences such as a failure to adequately deflect an inbound hunk of rock. “The risks are there whether we like it or not, and we need to minimize the chance of political fallout,” says Von Der Dunk.

The last time Earth took a wallop was in 1908, when a 45-meter asteroid blew up over the Tunguska region of Siberia, scorching 2000 square kilometers of forest. Although its unlikely that a Tunguska-sized rock or bigger will bear down on Earth in our lifetimes, the threat of an imminent collision with one known asteroid has not been ruled out. Apophis, a 300-meter asteroid, has a one in 45,000 chance of striking earth in 2036. “We’ll be close enough to study it again in 2012 and then we can get a better fix on its orbit, says Clark Chapman, an astronomer from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.