Image: Asteroid
Don Davis
Researchers speculate a giant fragment produced by a collision between two asteroids smashed into Earth 65 million years ago, creating the Chicxulub crater off the coast of the Yucatan.
updated 1/29/2010 4:18:05 PM ET 2010-01-29T21:18:05

International experts converged on Mexico City this month to discuss the best way to establish a global detection and warning network to monitor potential asteroid threats to all life on Earth.

The three-day workshop called together asteroid tracking specialists, space scientists, former astronauts and United Nations authorities, along with disaster management, risk psychology and warning communication experts.

"This workshop provided a major step forward in our thinking about the needed components of an information, analysis, and warning network for asteroids," said Ray Williamson, executive director of Secure World Foundation (SWF) in Superior, Colo., which organized the event.

The meeting ended Jan. 20 and was also coordinated by the Association of Space Explorers and the Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (CRECTEALC).

It ended just after a small meteorite crashed into a doctor's office in a small Virginia town, and just days ahead of the release of National Academy of Sciences report that found the United States is not doing enough to protect Earth from the danger posed by near-Earth asteroids and comets. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the workshop.

Gauging the threat
Sergio Camacho, secretary general of CRECTEALC and a former director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, said the workshop's report will be a vital resource to the U.N. science and technical panel supporting the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The committee is engaged in a three-year work plan on drafting international procedures for handling the threat posed by the possible impact to Earth by an asteroid.

Likewise, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), representing the international corps of astronauts and cosmonauts, recognized the substantial progress made at the Mexico City workshop.

"The discussions in Mexico City advanced our understanding of how the global community can better communicate detection and warning information about near-Earth objects (NEOs)," said planetary scientist Tom Jones, former NASA shuttle astronaut and current Chair of the ASE Committee on Near-Earth Objects.

"The information-sharing effort is an essential first step in dealing with the global hazard posed by asteroids and comets," he added. "The ASE looks forward to spreading the results of the recent workshop and urges future work within the U.N. and by the world's space agencies to develop the capacity to deflect a NEO headed for Earth, a fundamental mission for our space technology."

Serious scenarios
Participants examined several hypothetical, but gravely serious, scenarios of asteroids threatening to impact Earth. They highlighted challenges a future Information Analysis and Warning Network (IAWN) would encounter.

"For the first time, an international group of experts, many who would be the ones doing the actual analysis of an asteroid impact threat, came together to work through the challenges which will be faced by the international community in deciding how to respond to such an event," said Apollo astronaut, Russell Schweickart, a former chair of the ASE-NEO Committee.

"The participants grappled with scenarios ranging from a small impact, where evacuation of the impact zone is the most likely response, up to a large asteroid, where only an immediate decision to initiate a deflection campaign would prevent the disaster," Schweickart said. "The recommendations from this exercise will be integrated into the work of UN COPUOS where the nations of the world are discussing how to prevent these devastating, though infrequent, events."

Asteroid action team
IAWN represents just one of three entities being considered to deal with the NEO impact problem, outlined in a 2008 Association of Space Explorers report: Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response.

That ASE report was sent to the United Nations Action Team-14, a group within the UN COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, established in 2001 to address the asteroid impact threat.

Along with IAWN, the Association of Space Explorers report also recommended setting up:

  • A Mission Planning and Operations Group to plan, organize, and conduct any necessary missions to threatening asteroids. A Mission Authorization and Oversight Group to provide decision making.
  • Attendees of the just-held Mexico City gathering specifically focused on IAWN, although future meetings will discuss the other two entities.

Coordinated response
The IAWN workshop built on the conclusions of the ASE report following a recommendation by Action Team-14 at their meeting in June 2009.

Next month, the UN officials will hold a briefing on the recommendations from the Mexico City workshop, which will be submitted to Action Team-14 for consideration.

"We are fully aware that there is a lot of resistance to creating new bureaucracies and massive new institutions," said SWF Technical Advisor Brian Weeden. "So the objective of the workshop and future discussion is not to create a new United Nations function or entity, but to try and use existing capabilities already being provided by states or institutions and adding other necessary capability. There needs to be a coordinated, global response to asteroid threats, and we are working to find the most efficient and effective way of doing just that," he said.

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