Asteroid hazard prompts cash call

March 16, 2001

Peers have called on the government to provide funds to avert the potential threat of asteroids and other space debris colliding with the Earth.

Earlier this month, the government announced a package of measures in response to a report from the Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).

Lord Sainsbury said the threat required international action. In a House of Lords debate last week, he said that the nature of the risk made it "difficult to make a case for large extra funds to be made available".

He added that private funds were unlikely to be forthcoming and that the money would have to come from the existing astronomy and space budgets. These include a review of how UK telescope facilities can identify and monitor NEOs, to be carried out by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

The PPARC is considering how to exploit its telescopes to identify new NEOs, in particular the Vista telescope in Chile, due for completion in 2004.

The La Palma telescopes in the Canary Islands could then be used to track known asteroids.

The UK will have greater access to telescopes when it becomes a member of the European Southern Observatory and the PPARC is looking at refurbishing older telescopes to devote them to NEOs.

The next step would be to characterise the objects by taking spectra to assess their threat and plan aversion tactics. The review, due within a year, will also look at the costs and politics involved.

Paul Murdin, head of astronomy at the PPARC and director of science at the British National Space Centre, said: "Some of the recommendations could be accommodated in the existing budget. Being able to identify new money is less important than identifying what to do with existing money."

The government said it would also set up a public information facility, a forum of decision-makers convened by the European Space Agency and an international discussion and action forum set up by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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