The technology to detect and deflect dangerous space rocks already exists -- all that's missing is someone to coordinate its use.
That is the finding of a two-year investigation by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), an international group of astronauts, cosmonauts, and members of space community. The group unveiled the results of its research at the offices of the Google Foundation in San Francisco Thursday.
The report asks the U.N. to assume responsibility for responding to potentially catastrophic asteroid threats. "For 4.5 billion years, we've been bashed continuously by asteroids. It's time for that to stop," former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart told the assembly.
The ASE's vision is first for a global information network, coordinated by the U.N., that uses data from ground- and space-based telescopes to find, track and rate the risk of near-Earth objects (NEOs).
Currently, NASA is watching 209 NEOs, none of which is considered to be dangerous. But a threat is likely to be detected within the next 15 years, according to the ASE. "New telescopes coming online will increase these discoveries by a factor of 100," said Ed Lu, astronaut on space shuttle Atlantis.
'Blend of skills'
A new NEO Threat Oversight group would advise the UN Security Council about these risks. In the case of a threat, this group would help member states set defences into motion and, if such information came too late to act, coordinate the evacuations of cities at risk.
Persuading the international community to take this threat seriously will require both political leadership and pressure from below, said the ASE.
Recent "benign catastrophes", such as the meteorites that recently struck Peru and Canada, and the Tunguska fireball that exploded 120 years ago over Siberia with a force equivalent to 2,000 Hiroshima bombs, may have helped raise public awareness. "The Tunguska fireball could have destroyed a city," warned Schweickart.
A second U.N. project should assess plans in the works to destroy or deflect such an object, the ASE report suggests. "It would combine the skills of the space-faring nations to begin planning missions ... a blend of science and politics," said Michael Simpson, president of the International Space University in France.
The ASE's report Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response was delivered yesterday to Richard Crowther, chairman of the UN Action Team 14 group tasked to investigate near-earth Earth objects.
The ASE believes the price tag of the project to be around $500 million, half the cost of putting a single geosynchronous satellite into orbit.