Britain Sets up Task Force to Monitor Asteroid Threat

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - The movie "Armageddon" had actor Bruce Willis attempting to blow an asteroid off its earth-bound course, while a similar mission in "Deep Impact" was only partially successful - the latter movie depicting selected human beings and animals secured underground to repopulate the planet after the expected catastrophe.

Both Hollywood motion pictures depicted American administrations scrambling to try head off disaster. While neither scored particularly well in the credibility ratings, despite stunning effects, governments around the world may find increasing concerns exist about the possibility of asteroids striking the planet.

The British government, for one, has come under pressure to consider the possibilities. Tuesday it named the members of an expert task force established to examine the risks posed by an asteroid hitting the earth.

The United Kingdom now becomes only the second country whose government has taken concrete steps in this regard. The United States established a project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California in 1998.

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury appointed three specialists, led by a former council chairman of the European Space Agency, Dr Harry Atkinson, to monitor what are known as "near earth objects" (NEOs).

Sainsbury's decision followed calls by a Welsh lawmaker, Lembit Opik, to take the matter seriously. Opik, a Liberal Democrat, told the House of Commons last year the risk of being killed by an asteroid hitting the Earth was 750 times higher than the chance of winning the country's national lottery.

The experts will look into the problem, and examine ways Britain could contribute to international efforts to prevent a strike. They will report back on their findings by the middle of this year.

Sainsbury said that while "the risk of an asteroid or comet causing substantial damage is extremely remote" it could not be ignored, "and a case can be made for monitoring the situation on an international basis.

"I hope that the setting up of this task force will help the UK play a full and prominent role in international discussions on this important issue," he added.

One of the taskforce members, Sir Crispin Tickell, noted that an object had passed between earth and the moon last year. Had it hit the planet, he said, it would have caused "a lot of damage."

The government says no near-earth-objects currently being tracked are believed to pose a significant threat to the planet.

That view was confirmed by Jay Tate, director of Spaceguard UK, a non-governmental organization set up to monitor the threat and through links to scientists around the world, to supply information to the government and public.

Nonetheless, he believes earth will one day be hit.

"The scenarios depicted in "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" will happen -- it is a statistical certainty," Tate said. "The only question is when. The chance that you will be killed by asteroid impact is twice as high as the chance you'll meet your end in a plane crash."

Tate has expressed frustration at the reaction that usually meets references to asteroid impacts, saying "the whole subject suffers from a substantial giggle factor.

"However, it's now technically possible to avoid, or at least mitigate, the effects of impacts. This is why it is so important for the subject to be discussed now."

Tate told Tuesday Spaceguard welcomed the establishment of the government task force, and had already begun cooperating with the experts.

"We're also confident they'll confirm the nature of the threat and will recommend scientific and practical actions for the UK to take."

His organization was pressing for the establishment of a national "Spaceguard Center" to bring together the considerable resources and expertise available in the country.

The center, which could be located at a leading observatory in Northern Ireland, would serve as "a focus in the UK for near earth object studies," an advisory service to the public, and promote what he sees as the ideal subject to enhance the public understanding of science.

The "bottom line," Tate said, was early detection, which would give the authorities many years to prepare and take action. After detection, the near-earth-objects would need to be constantly tracked and monitored.

While the Americans were "way ahead when it comes to detection," they were not adequately tracking or following up the objects, he claimed. "Without tracking, there's no point in detecting them."

Tate said that currently the "quick and dirty" methods depicted in the recent asteroid movies - using nuclear explosive or missiles to try destroy or divert the objects - were "pretty much the only options we've got."

For that reason, much more work needed to be done in conjunction with the international community on determining the nature of asteroids, and in looking for other ways to handle the threat they may pose.

Professor Mark Bailey, the director of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, is also backing the setting up of a national center.

"Major cosmic impacts don't occur very often," he said recently, "but when they do they have the potential to kill millions, if not billions of people - worse than a global nuclear war."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow