United Nations to Spearhead Asteroid Deflection Plan

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If an incoming asteroid became a blip on our radar, who do you suppose we’d call? Sure, you could try NASA, which will formulate a baffling plan to assemble a brigade of oil drillers to detonate a nuke on the marauding space rock. But, assuming you don’t want to be the part of a bad Hollywood storyline, you’d likely call the second number in your Rolodex — the United Nations. Sadly, even if you did call the U.N., there wouldn’t have been much of a response — except, perhaps, some mild panic.

That is, until now.

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The U.N. is currently in the early stages of setting up an “International Asteroid Warning Group” so that member nations can share data about hazardous space rocks and coordinate an interception plan should a scary space rock be identified, according to Scientific American. The U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will coordinate the mission, in an effort to prevent the asteroid from putting a dent in our planet.

Phew.

It is, perhaps, surprising to find out that there wasn’t a plan in place before today. Near-Earth asteroids, after all, are the oft-cited harbinger of doom for humanity. Also, there are some very famous extinction events most likely triggered by stonking great space rocks (bye bye T. rex). Forget the dinosaurs and their sad demise for a moment, what about that cosmic flesh wound we received in February, when a ‘tiny’ asteroid exploded, unannounced, over the city of Chelyabinsk, injuring up to 1,500 people and causing millions of dollars worth of property damage?

That event was the biggest asteroid hit in modern history after the Tunguska impact of 1908, and there are a lot more where that came from.

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“There are 100 times more asteroids out there than we have found. There are about 1 million asteroids large enough to destroy New York City or larger,” said Ed Lu, ex-NASA astronaut and co-founder of the B612 Foundation. “Our challenge is to find these asteroids first before they find us.”

Lu was speaking at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Oct. 25 with other Association of Space Explorers (ASE) members to push the point home about planetary safety and the continuous threat of asteroids, many as small as the Chelyabinsk impactor. Last week, the U.N. took the ASE recommendations on board, prompting the General Assembly to kick start planning for the U.N.-headed initiative.

“No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 legend, fellow ASE member and B612 Foundation co-founder. “NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency.”

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The front line of any asteroid impact mitigation strategy is that of early warning. Nudging even a small asteroid off course would be a lengthy affair. Even assembling the resources to attack said space rock with a nuclear weapon (should that plan be deemed effective) would take some time. Therefore the ASE members advocate better monitoring of the skies as, if we spot an incoming asteroid too late, it will be, well, too late.

“If we don’t find it until a year out, make yourself a nice cocktail and go out and watch,” quipped Schweickart.

Not waiting for a government-funded program, the B612 Foundation is planning its own infrared space telescope, the Sentinel. The $450 million mission will launch in 2017 if the cash can be raised for developmental and launch costs.

You can watch the full American Museum of Natural History talk here:

Image: The U.N. flag. Plus asteroid. Credit: U.N./edit by Ian O’Neill/Discovery News