The tiny asteroid that zipped between Earth and the moon this past September wasn't big enough to have caused any damage if it entered our atmosphere, but the heavens hold a lot of other big space rocks and conceivably one day one of those giant asteroids could hit the Earth, with disastrous results. Case in point, the meteor that exploded over Russia this past February injured more than 1,000 people.
The United Nations doesn't want that to happen again, so this week they announced a plan to set up what they have dubbed the International Asteroid Warning Network, as well as a planning advisory group to develop ideas on how to deflect any asteroid perceived to be a threat to the planet. Some of the new mission will be conducted under the U.N.'s existing Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which includes 74 member nations ranging from the U.S. to Russia to Iran.
All of this comes as a response to recommendations from the Association of Space Explorers, which urged the world's individual nations to delegate the responsibility for monitoring and mitigating space-bound threats to an international body. "No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies," ASE member Rusty Schweickart (an Apollo 9 astronaut) said at a public event last week. "NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency."
Schweickart's comments came during an ASE public event about "near-Earth objects" which was held in conjunction with the U.N.'s General Assembly meeting where the new asteroid protection plan was formalized. Former astronaut Ed Lu said during the forum, "There are about 1 million asteroids large enough to destroy New York City or larger. Our challenge is to find these asteroids first before they find us." Lu himself founded the B612 Foundation, which is developing a space telescope to look for future threats.
Schweickart said that the ultimate goal should not be to identify potential asteroid threats just a few weeks or months before they might hit but five or ten years before they become a danger. Hitting an asteroid that far off could alter its course just enough to avoid hitting Earth. Waiting until it was a year out would not be enough and a potential impact zone would need to be evacuated.
The ASE's panel discussion, moderated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, was streamed live and can be seen below:
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