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updated 11/12/2010 4:18:18 PM ET 2010-11-12T21:18:18

DARMSTADT, Germany Space agencies around the world are working to be ready to coordinate their response to any potentially harmful asteroid headed for Earth.

To help focus a world-class planetary defense against threatening near-Earth objects, the space experts are seeking to establish a high-level Mission Planning and Operations Group, or MPOG for short.

Veteran astronauts and space planners gathered here at the European Space Agency's European Space Operations Center Oct. 27-29 to shape the asteroid threat response plan and establish an Information Analysis and Warning Network.

The MPOG workshop was organized by the European Space Agency, the Association of Space Explorers and Secure World Foundation (for whom this columnist is a research associate).

"It was the first face-to-face meeting of representatives from space agencies wrestling with the tough geopolitical and technical issues which they will face when we're confronted with an actual impact threat," said former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, a workshop leader and longtime activist on ways to protect the Earth from future asteroid impacts.

Sticky issues with space rocks

While the technical issues early warning and deflection are challenging, they essentially pale in comparison with the very sticky issues that will confront the community of nations when they have to make a collective decision to act on an actual threat, Schweickart told SPACE.com. [ 5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids ]

"This really has to be a collective decision," Schweickart said, "since, in the deflection process, there will be a trail of nations across which the impact point moves as we shift it off the Earth."

The space agencies in the MPOG workshop grappled with the questions of what would have to be performed and how they would do it, Schweickart said, "either as the 'designated hitter,' as it were or collectively in some way. These are difficult geopolitical challenges, and the workshop provided the first face-to-face setting for many of the space agencies to grapple with it together."

The workshop touched upon a number of strategies to deflect an incoming object, but there was also discussion of using a "physics package," space slang for a nuclear bomb if need be. There remains a good deal of discussion over which deflection strategy best serves the planet and humankind if time is on our side.

Asteroid workshop findings

Participants agreed that the "sooner the better" would be the best approach to identifying a menacing NEO. Early identification would enable a much more coordinated approach between nations to fend off any head-on collision between our sweet world and a large space rock.

"Understanding how to react if we were really faced with an imminent asteroid impact threat is very important. This workshop was an important part of defining the decision process," said Detlef Koschny, Near-Earth Object segment manager of ESA in the Netherlands and a coordinator of the MPOG workshop.

In a post-workshop handout, the attendees concluded that:

  • A Mission Planning and Operations Group should be established.
  • The MPOG should identify to space agencies the technical issues involved in planetary defense, to take advantage of synergies between human exploration, science, and study of the NEO hazard.
  • The MPOG should propose research themes in NEO deflection for use by space agencies, addressing those areas most critical for effective deflection strategies.
  • There is great value in finding hazardous NEOs early, to reduce the costs of deflection missions. Early detection would require upgraded NEO search and tracking capabilities.

What next?

The results of the workshop will be folded into the ongoing work of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in its sessions next spring and summer. This will all come together as a set of recommendations or procedures that will be put before the U.N. General Assembly in about a year.

"By coordinating future MPOG meetings with the asteroid decision-making efforts in the U.N., the spacefaring nations can prepare for joint action against a future asteroid impact," said former astronaut Tom Jones, chairman of the Association of Space Explorers' Committee on Near-Earth Objects.

"This meeting advanced the technical solutions we'll need to respond to an impact threat," Jones added.

"The U.N. process addresses international decision-making when to mount a deflection campaign. Both efforts will need to progress far beyond these early discussions to create a true asteroid response capability," Jones told SPACE.com.

ESA's multi-pronged approach

Moving out on the planetary defense issue is the European Space Agency. For its part, the ESA has kick-started a multi-pronged and phased Space Situational Awareness Preparatory Program, said Nicolas Bobrinsky, who is head of the effort.

The initiative would give Europe the capability to watch for objects and natural phenomena that could harm satellites in orbit or facilities on the ground. Bobrinsky noted that an asteroid impact would release devastating kinetic energy causing a myriad of woes, from blast waves and tsunamis to atmospheric disturbances and electromagnetic effects.

The NEO component of the ESA plan includes discovery, identification and orbit-prediction functions, as well as a future civil warning capability. Full operational services are to be implemented in 2012-19.

Meanwhile, Schweickart said the truism in the forefront of the NEO-versus-Earth dialogue today is, "Find them early, find them early, and find them early."

"Upgrading our telescopic capability to find the far more numerous smaller but still very dangerous asteroids is the most important investment we can make," Schweickart concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades and has written for SPACE.com since 1999. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines.

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